Middle East Ticker

Turkey Invades Syria to Fight U.S.-backed Kurdish Forces ... Again

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, January 23, 2018, 10:00 AM

Turkey Launches Military Operation against U.S.-backed Forces in Syria

As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was committing to an open-ended U.S. presence in eastern Syria last week with the ambitious goals of preventing the return of the Islamic State, denying Iran a corridor to the Mediterranean, and ultimately removing the Assad regime, one of Washington’s most important partners, Turkey, was launching a new military incursion targeting U.S.-backed forces. The clashes come after the United States announced plans for a new “border force” that would train and further legitimate elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the largely Kurdish coalition of local militias in eastern Syria that was instrumental to the territorial defeat of the Islamic State. U.S. officials quickly tried to soften the language after the announcement provoked the ire of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who publicly denounced the plan and promised “to stop this army of terror before it is born.” Tillerson met with Turkish Prime Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu last week and stressed that the U.S. plan was “not properly described” and the planned force would be focused on internal security in Syria. “We are not creating a border security force at all,” he said.

Tillerson’s reassurances have not satisfied Turkey, and Ankara’s frustrations with the SDF run deeper than the most recent diplomatic fumbling over the future of U.S. support to Syrian forces. As Aaron Stein notes for War on the Rocks, “the Turkish threat is the culmination of years of tensions with Washington over Syria policy in general, and divergences over how best to fight the Islamic State.” Turkey has been preparing overtly for a new offensive for more than a month, back when they had reason to believe that President Trump may have promised Ankara he would cut off aid to Kurdish partner forces. Last week, Turkish forces began shelling Kurdish targets across the border and carrying out airstrikes, then began sending in troops and Free Syrian Army forces on Sunday. Officials said that the intervention has been given the Orwellian name “Operation Olive Branch.”

Kurdish forces have long anticipated an eventual attack from Turkey, prefigured by Operation Euphrates Shield, the Turkish intervention launched in 2016 to prevent Kurdish forces from uniting their western and eastern cantons in northern Syria. For just as long, they have anticipated that their allies will desert them once the immediate threat of the Islamic State subsided. As one American who volunteered with the SDF told the Chapo Trap House podcast a year ago, “America is absolutely, 100 percent going to abandon the Kurds for Turkey … Even the most, like, farmer-type people in our platoons were well aware that they couldn’t trust the Americans—because it wouldn’t be the first time America has stabbed the Kurds in the back.” Syrian Kurds have tried to build up an array of international partners, including Russia, to reinforce themselves against the threat of a Turkish incursion. But as Turkey initiated its assault over the weekend, Russia withdrew its troops from Afrin province.

Russian officials called for restraint over the weekend and said it would join the Assad regime in opposing the Turkish intervention at the United Nations. The U.S. response has been similarly feckless. Last Wednesday, Tillerson told BuzzFeed that the problem had all been a “miscommunication” over U.S. defense planning in eastern Syria, and the United States owed Turkey an “explanation.” On Friday, a senior State Department official told reporters on a conference call that he was relying on news reports to find out what was happening in Afrin but called Turkey’s actions “destabilizing.” The next day, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert issued a statement expressing Secretary Tilllerson’s “concern” and called on Turkey to “exercise restraint and ensure that its military operations remain limited in scope and duration and scrupulous to avoid civilian casualties.” When asked on Monday whether the U.S. Defense Department had given Turkey approval for the operation, Secretary Mattis told reporters that he would “prefer not to answer that.”

France called yesterday for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, but Erdogan has said that the operation will continue to advance until it reaches Manbij. “There’s no stepping back from Afrin,” he said on Monday. “We discussed this with our Russian friends, we have an agreement with them, and we also discussed it with other coalition forces and the United States.” Kurdish forces told reporters yesterday that they have managed to repel the assault so far, but that shelling and airstrikes have been hitting civilian neighborhoods. As of this morning, two Turkish soldiers have died in the fighting, according to Turkish officials.

The clashes could undermine the new plan for Syria that Tillerson outlined in a speech at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute last week. The plan entails the open-ended deployment of U.S. troops—there are 2,000 presently in eastern Syria—to bolster local partner forces. Tilllerson laid out five goals for U.S. policy, some of which seem feasible and others that are far removed from the limited means the United States has laid out. The U.S. policy would confront and mitigate threats from jihadist groups, including the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, Tillerson said—but the plan focuses on eastern Syria to prevent a resurgence by the Islamic State and does not project force into western Syria, where most other jihadist groups are operating. The plan would form a buffer that would prevent Iran from establishing a conduit from Tehran to Beirut, a policy that Israeli officials and some U.S. defense planners have advocated for more than a year. Tillerson said the United States would push for a Syria “free of weapons of mass destruction,” but despite the Trump administration’s airstrike against a chemical weapons stockpile last April, that remains a distant goal; just yesterday, Syrian rescue workers accused the Assad regime of carrying out another chlorine gas attack in Douma, east of Damascus. Tillerson’s most surprising condition for a Syrian endstate was the resolution of “the underlying conflict between the Syrian people and the Assad regime” via U.N.-sponsored negotiations and the realization of a “stable, unified, independent Syria, under post-Assad leadership.”

Tillerson could not explain how the ongoing presence of 2,000 U.S. troops and the training of local security forces in eastern Syria would move the conflict toward a resolution—or Bashar al-Assad toward the exit. Shortly after the speech, on the flight back to Washington, Tillerson already seemed to be backpedaling, telling BuzzFeed that the focus is on the Islamic State. “We’ve been very clear that we’re not there to in any way engage with the regime, we’re not there to engage with Iran. … We’re there to defeat ISIS,” he said. On Monday, Secretary Mattis specified an even more limited mandate in Syria, noting that the United States is drawing down its forces there. “We're just making certain that it's turned over responsibly to the locals and that the locals have a seat at the table in Geneva,” he said.

Pence’s Jerusalem Announcement Gets Cheers in Knesset But Limits Options

Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the Israeli Knesset yesterday, a stop on his trip through the Middle East that was previously postponed last month when the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital rankled relations with other countries on Pence’s itinerary. (Those meetings, in Egypt and Jordan, occurred over the weekend, where the Jerusalem decision was met with a frosty response.) In his speech, Pence took a rhetorical victory lap for the Jerusalem decision and announced that the United States plans to open its embassy in the city next year. Pence’s comments were met with cheers, but several Arab members of the Knesset who staged a protest had already been removed from the chamber.

Pence was a driving force behind the decision to recognize Jerusalem, but as Emma Green writes for The Atlantic, it has undermined his other priorities in the Middle East. “Originally, Pence’s trip was supposed to focus on Christian persecution, according to The Washington Post,” she writes. “But influential religious leaders in Egypt—including Tawadros II, the Coptic patriarch, and Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of Al-Azhar mosque—refused to meet with him. Palestinian Christian leaders, including Munib Younan, the former head of the Lutheran World Federation, have spoken out against the vice president’s visit.”

Pence also said in his speech that the United States would support a two-state solution “if both sides agree,” but his appeal only drew applause from half the chamber—Netanyahu’s opposition. There, again, the Jerusalem decision has created an obstacle to any renewed peace process. The decision has pushed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas into a reactionary fervor, which hasn’t been helped by the Trump administration’s decision to withhold $65 million in scheduled funding from UNRWA, the U.N. agency that provides assistance to Palestinian refugees. Other countries—including Belgium and the Netherlands—have agreed to step up their pledges to UNRWA to bridge at least some of the gap left by the United States. In a two-hour speech on Sunday, Abbas rebuked Trump administration officials, Arab leaders, and engaged in open anti-Semitism. The Oslo agreement was dead, he said, and he would no longer recognize the United States as a mediator. Grant Rumley, who wrote a biography of Abbas, argued for The Atlantic that the speech was akin to the rejectionism of Yasser Arafat; with his days as president possibly numbered, it could tilt “the scales in favor of a more volatile successor.” Even if Pence truly wants a two-state solution, its unclear who else does on either side of the negotiating table.

Egypt Prepares for Presidential Elections in March

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is finalizing his plan to seek re-election. The Egyptian National Election Authority announced earlier this month that presidential elections will be held at the end of March, but the political maneuvering to prepare for the polls has been underway for months.

Potential candidates have had their efforts to launch campaigns blocked by mysterious circumstances. Gen. Ahmed Shafiq, who lost the presidential race against Mohammed Morsi in 2012 and has been living abroad in the United Arab Emirates, returned to Egypt in December with the declared intention to run again. He was immediately met with criminal charges for allegedly sending a tape announcing his candidacy to Al-Jazeera (which he denies doing). Soon after, “Shafiq disappeared, and his family had feared he’d been kidnapped,” Bloomberg reports. When he resurfaced, Shafiq said he had reconsidered his candidacy and decided “that I’m not the best person to lead the affairs of the state in the coming period.”

Mohamed Anwar Sadat, another prospective candidate (and the nephew of assassinated president Anwar Sadat), could not find a hotel with a conference hall that was willing to allow him to rent space for a press conference announcing his candidacy. One hotel “told us they got instructions from security agencies not to hold a conference for this person,” Sadat’s media coordinator told Reuters. Print shops refused to print his election pamphlets. Sadat also removed himself from contention earlier this month.

Khaled Ali, another potential candidate, told Reuters that he’s struggled to fulfill the requirement of securing pledges of support from either 20 members of parliament or at least 25,000 eligible voters, each verified by a notary. Not only is it a severe burden, but Ali says that voters are being intimidated by authorities when they come forward to notary offices to register support for candidates other than Sisi. Another prospective nominee said notaries were simply not processing voters’ pledges for his candidacy. Reuters reports that its reporters saw first hand eligible voters at three notary offices discussing bribes they were told they would receive for pledging their support for the incumbent, Sisi.

Just this morning, another declared candidate—Sami Anan, a former chief of staff of the Egyptian military who was part of the Supreme Council of the Allied Forces during the last years of the Mubarak regime—was also targeted by authorities. Army officials said today that Anan had falsified documents pertaining to the end of his military service, making him ineligible to run, and that he was being summoned for questioning for inciting a rift between the military and the public. At this point, it’s unclear who will actually make it through the gauntlet of onerous requirements and harassment by state officials to reach the ballot. Candidates have until January 29 to declare their intention to run and receive the notarized pledges of support.

While he has been suppressing potential candidates, Sisi has also shaken up his administration. Last week, he dismissed his top intelligence official, Khaled Fawzy, who had previously been a close advisor to the president. The decision could be related to embarrassing leaked audio, reported by the New York Times, in which intelligence officials instructed Egyptian talk show hosts to downplay the significance of the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which has prompted a criminal investigation in Egypt. He quickly replaced Fawzy with his chief of staff, Abbas Kemal, as the new head of the General Intelligence Service. Sisi also previously sacked his chief of defense, another close advisor, last October after a deadly ambush by militants in the country’s western desert.

Sisi is also dealing with a crisis with Ethiopia over Ethiopia’s plans to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Egyptian officials worry could considerably diminish the Nile River’s northward flow toward the Mediterranean. Sisi met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn last week but could not reach a resolution, and Ethiopia has rejected Egypt’s request that the World Bank arbitrate the dispute.

So Vice President Pence’s visit on Saturday came at a complicated time for Sisi. In more than two hours of meetings, Pence stressed the U.S. commitment to helping Egypt on issues of counterterrorism and requested Sisi’s help to secure the release of two Americans imprisoned in Egypt. Sisi expressed frustration about the Trump administration’s Jerusalem decision, though his administration has reportedly said different things in public and in private. “We heard President el-Sisi out … He said to me about what he said publicly about a disagreement between friends over our decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Pence told reporters, saying that Sisi’s comments prompted Pence’s reiteration of support for a two-state solution if both sides could agree to it. “My perception was that he was encouraged by that message,” Pence said.