Rudaw: What would an all-out war between Turkey and the SDF entail?

Paul Iddon, a journalist writing from Erbil, KRG, in Iraq has written his views, in local Rudaw media, about the imminent conflict between Turkish and Turkish-backed forces in NE Syria. The question he poses is on everyone’s mind. This might be two players playing on different chessboards.

“With Turkey on the verge of launching a major military operation in northeast Syria against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), it is more important than ever to ascertain the likely consequences of such an act of aggression for both Syria and Turkey.

The US has already begun withdrawing troops from northeastern Syria’s border with Turkey mere hours after US President Donald Trump gave the green-light for Turkish forces to invade. This will give Turkey free reign to attack the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and invade the heartland of Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava).

The White House said it “will not support or be involved” in such an operation but also “will no longer be in the immediate area”.

Trump, meanwhile, has blithely tweeted that the Kurds will simply have to “figure the situation out” themselves, including what to do with the thousands of Islamic State fighters that remain in SDF captivity, many in makeshift prisons.

For its part, the SDF has reiterated its warning that any major Turkish attack will plunge the region into all-out war.

“We will not hesitate to turn any unprovoked attack by Turkey into an all-out war on the entire border to defend ourselves and our people,” said SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali.

The SDF previously warned that a Turkish attack would lead to a war spanning the entire 600-kilometer shared border between Syria and Turkey.

At the same time, the SDF showed complete cooperation with the US when Washington sought to establish a “safe zone” along the border to placate Turkey’s security concerns and threats to attack in August.

The SDF voluntarily removed its heavy weapons and destroyed defensive fortifications near the border to demonstrate it posed no threat to Turkey.

The group even advocated establishing a safe zone along the entire length of the border in a bid to stave off a unilateral Turkish invasion.

Having made all these concessions, the SDF still faces the threat of a major attack.

Despite the Americans also establishing a joint command centre with Turkey to monitor SDF compliance with the deal – which included group and helicopter patrols – Turkish officials repeatedly expressed their dissatisfaction and repeated their threat to invade.

After a single phone call with his Turkish counterpart on Sunday, Trump decided to let Turkey seize a chunk of the border. In the coming days and weeks, this will likely see the SDF retaliate, which could have ramifications beyond the immediate Syrian-Turkish border area.

According to Dr Micha’el Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies (AIES), a large-scale Turkish invasion “risks Ankara becoming mired in a quagmire that may also spread north of the border”.

“By maintaining military positions across Syria and in Iraq, Turkey is stretching its need for force protection against guerrilla operations,” Tanchum told Rudaw English.

Turkey has expanded its operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq since early 2018. It established several new forward operating bases in areas where the PKK is active. From August 2018, it has also had some success in killing senior PKK members through targeted air and drone strikes, a first in the decades-long conflict.

In May it launched Operation Claw against the group, which after three different phases is still ongoing as of writing.

Tanchum believes that a major war in northeast Syria could see a convergence of sorts, with the SDF fighting Turkey in northeast Syria while the PKK also fights Turkish forces in southeast Turkey and possibly even in the Kurdistan Region simultaneously.

“Turkey has no shortage of adversaries who would fund and supply guerrillas for such a campaign,” he said, adding that “much will depend” on what kind of arrangements Turkey has made with Russia, the Syrian regime and Iran.

“The greatest threat would be concurrent guerrilla campaigns against Turkey in northern Syria and within southern Turkey itself,” he said.

Tanchum offers the precedent of youth militias in Turkey’s Kurdish regions back in 2015.

“Turkey could face another popular uprising spearheaded by similar militias in the southeast,” he said.

Tanchum noted that the YPG – the main component of the multiethnic SDF – has had “close to a year to prepare for the eventuality of a Turkish invasion”.

“There have been reports of extensive tunnel building in northeast Syria,” he said.

“Turkey’s administration of a large swath of northern Syria may prove more costly than Ankara anticipates, depending on the response of Kurds on both sides of the border.””