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Thursday, 25 August 2016 19:08

TURKEY MOVES ON SYRIA

Editorial, The Wall Street Journal, 24.08.2016   

 

ISLAMIC STATE IS A BIGGER THREAT TO ANKARA THAN IS A KURDISH AUTONOMOUS ZONE   

 

As military operations go, Turkey’s pre-dawn incursion Wednesday into Syria is neither large nor particularly complex. A combined force of some 20 Turkish tanks, along with 500 troops of the Free Syrian Army and U.S air assets and special forces, entered western Syria to evict Islamic State from Jarabulus on the banks of the Euphrates River. By evening they had taken the town, depriving Islamic State of its last stronghold along the Turkish border and one of its key supply lines.  

 

Yet the Jarabulus raid has wider strategic implications. How they play out depends on whether the aim of the operation is to fight Islamic terror or serve as another opportunity to thwart the Kurdish forces that have been America’s best ally in that fight.  

 

So far it looks like the latter. Though the incursion comes days after an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 54 people at a wedding in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, Ankara’s timing seems to have been dictated by its fears that the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG forces would cross the Euphrates and capture Jarabulus before it could. Turkish PresidentRecep Tayyip Erdogan considers the YPG to be a terrorist group based on its purported links to the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK. Mr. Erdogan is fighting an underreported war of “liquidation” in southeastern Turkey and routinely uses artillery to attack the YPG.   

 

But the YPG is not a terrorist group, and it has been Washington’s most effective proxy in the fight against Islamic State in Syria. Its fighters—ethnic Kurds, Arabs and Yazidis—are doing the bulk of the fighting. Without them, Islamic State would long ago have seized northern Syria, posing an even larger risk to Turkey.  

 

That’s an argument we hope Joe Biden, who arrived in Turkey on Wednesday, makes to Mr. Erdogan. The Vice President is trying to smooth relations with Ankara following last month’s attempted coup, which Mr. Erdogan blames on Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. But the evidence of Mr. Gulen’s involvement is slender, and the Administration has been right to resist Turkey’s extradition demands. There’s no upside for the U.S. in contributing to Mr. Erdogan’s purge of alleged conspirators.   

 

Mr. Biden should also explain that Turkey has nothing to gain by treating the YPG as an enemy, or by opposing a Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria akin—and perhaps joined—to Iraqi Kurdistan. The autonomous region, established with the help of a U.S. no-fly zone after the 1991 Gulf War, is a rare Middle East success, thanks to political moderation, military prowess and U.S. assistance. Turkey could use more such neighbors.   

 

The principal threat to Turkish security comes from Islamic jihadists, not alienated Kurds or the liberal-minded social activists Mr. Erdogan is arresting in droves. An autonomous Kurdish region outside of Turkey could mitigate separatist Kurdish tendencies and serve as a buffer against Arab upheavals. That should be attractive considering the alternatives of Islamic State or Bashar Assad.   

 

As for the U.S., Kurdish autonomy in Syria would reward a deserving ally and serve as a template for a broader division of the country into self-governing Kurdish, Alawite and Sunni regions. Such a formula helped end the war in Bosnia in the mid-1990s and it could resolve the zero-sum struggle for power that fuels the Syrian civil war.   

 

Turkey’s president has shown himself to be more strongman than statesman in his 13 years in power, so the Jarabulus raid probably doesn’t mean a serious change in policy. But facts are stubborn things, and even Mr. Erdogan might understand that he has less to lose by helping the Kurds to win than in allowing the slaughters of Syria to keep spilling across his borders.

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