The Turkish government may turn its forces loose on the main rebel group central to U.S. efforts against the Islamic State, the Institute for the Study of War warns.
Turkish security forces are currently engaged in operations against the ISIS held town of al-bab in northern Syria, but have reportedly signaled their intent to wage war on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) after the operation is complete. The SDF are a proxy force of the U.S. most relied upon to retake the ISIS capital of Raqqa, and several-hundred U.S. special operators are embedded with them.
“Turkey has stated its intent to shift its focus from ISIS to the Syrian Kurds after the seizure of the ISIS-held town of al Bab in Northern Aleppo Province, which ISW forecasts is likely in the coming weeks,” the think tank warned. “A Turkish offensive to drive the SDF east could divert Turkish and SDF resources from combatting ISIS for months,” the warning update continues.
ISW continues, saying that the squabble could inadvertently benefit ISIS because “a halt to the SDF’s operations against ISIS could allow the group to retake territory in Northern Syria, divert forces to its assault on pro-regime held Deir ez-Zour City, or send reinforcements to defend Mosul City in Iraq.”
The majority of the SDF are comprised of Kurdish forces, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regards as an existential threat to the country on par with ISIS. Turkey has made it a point to strike SDF forces in the past, striking several positions just days before former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter visited the country in October, 2016.
Trump and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis have quietly escalated the U.S. ground war against ISIS with additional assistance to the SDF. “There are signs of full support from the new American leadership — more than before — for our forces,” an SDF spokesman told Reuters Feb. 1. Trump also indicated in July he was a “big fan” of the Kurdish forces, and wanted to balance his strategy with Turkey. “It would be really wonderful if we could put them somehow both together,” he told The New York Times.
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