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Jan 11 2019

How will Turkey 'neutralise' Syrian Kurdish forces?

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton visited Ankara this week and held a two-hour meeting with İbrahim Kalın, the special adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Days before the meeting, Bolton made a statement in Israel demanding guarantees that Turkey would not attack the mainly Kurdish forces allied with the Americans in Syria. Bolton's statement precipitated a backlash from Ankara. While Turkey was planning to 'neutralise' the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northeast Syria, the demand by its NATO ally that Ankara protects the same group naturally caused some anger.

Press reports said Bolton would also meet Erdoğan in Ankara, but the Turkish head of state snubbed the U.S. official and said it would be more appropriate for him to meet his counterpart Kalın. The White House said Erdoğan did not meet Bolton due to preparations for Turkish local elections in March. Bolton, who arrived in Ankara Tuesday afternoon, left at noon on Wednesday citing an emergency meeting in the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump's opponents interpreted Bolton's visit as a humiliation, but the White House said it had been productive. Kalın similarly highlighted the positive points of the meeting after making it clear that he disagreed with Bolton's statement about assurances for the safety of the Kurdish groups.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was more direct than Bolton when in an interview he noted, "the importance of ensuring that the Turks don’t slaughter the Kurds". Pompeo's statement confirms that even if the United States withdraws from Syria, it will continue to protect the Kurds.

All these developments and statements prove that Turkey and the United States are at odds with each other, but also trying to manage affairs for the time being.

U.S. officials have on many occasions stated their opposition to a Turkish military operation to capture Manbij, a small town in northern Syria held by Syrian Kurdish forces. But now there are signs that Turkey, in turn, might be having some concerns related to the same operation. Turkish Second Army Commander General Metin Temel was reassigned late last month. Media speculation suggested the general had expressed concerns about a possible military operation to the east of Euphrates. If the reports are accurate and the general indeed expressed his worries, it is a manifestation of the proper decision-making mechanism in the Turkish military.

The commander recognised the shortcomings in the military operation and brought the issue to the attention of the political decision-makers.

The assessment of Temel, who commanded Turkey’s two previous operations into Syria, is no doubt significant. It is doubtful the Turkish army would be defeated during such an operation, but the question is whether the cost and possible casualties justify it. Temel knows what kind of difficulties the Turkish armed forces encountered during the previous operations under his command. And he probably knows how different a military action to the east of the Euphrates could be as well.

It is still unclear how the vacuum in the region will be filled after the U.S. troop withdrawal. There is speculation of that UAE and Egyptian troops might be deployed in the area. Turkey's relations with these two countries are not where they need to be, hence such a move might cause the emergence of unpleasant friction between these nations and that will mostly benefit the YPG.

It was widely reported that the United States has distributed 20,000 truckloads of supplies, weapons and ammunition to the YPG and trained them its forces. Therefore, it can be assumed that the Kurds the east of the Euphrates are both well equipped and battle-hardened from their long fight with Islamic State. Besides, they have more fighters than the militias in previous areas of Turkish operations. Therefore, it is important to note that the operation to the east of the Euphrates is different from the previous ones. Temel deserves praise for taking the responsibility of raising these issues.

Turkey's goal in the regions is known to be to neutralise YPG forces in the area. But the government needs to be more precise on its use of the term 'neutralising', to clear away some of the criticism.

The YPG is known to have 20,000 to 30,000 armed personnel, including the Women's Protection Units (YPJ). Is Turkey going to 'neutralise' all of those 30,000 people? What does it mean to 'neutralise'? If it means to kill or capture these fighters, is it a realistic goal? If it means commandeering these groups' U.S.-supplied weapons and releasing them, where will they go? They can find other weapons and keep fighting. There are already many countries willing to arm them since they are not on the list of terrorist organisations in most states. If Turkey is planning to jail the fighters, is it even possible?

Turkey, without doubt, must have evaluated these details during its military planning. If it explained the answers to these questions, the Turkish government could prevent future irresponsible statements from officials of other nations, such as, "we will not let the Turks slaughter the Kurds".