Seth J Frantzman

The prospect of another, even bloodier clash in Syria is growing

The prospect of another, even bloodier clash in Syria is growing
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Turkey and Russia back different sides in the Syrian conflict, but they do agree on one thing: the role of the United States in Syria has grown too large. This view accounts for the recent Turkish incursion against US-backed Kurdish militias in Afrin, in northern Syria. As well as taking military action, Turkey's politicians are now also growing in confidence in speaking out against the US. The country's deputy prime minister, Bekir Bozdag, is the latest to do so, warning US soldiers in Syria against wearing 'terrorist uniforms' of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). He went on to say:

'If US soldiers wear terrorist uniforms or are among the terrorists in the event of an attack against the army then there is not going to be the chance to make a distinction. If they come up against us in such a uniform we will see them as...terrorists.'

The prospect of another bloody clash in Syria is growing, and it is not only Turkey piping up against what is being viewed as a US incursion. Syrian state media also condemned Washington this week, accusing it of supporting 'terrorists and murderers' in Syria. After seven years of conflict in Syria it appears many parties finally agree on something: they want the US out of the country. 

This tension has been bubbling away for some time. Moscow, Damascus and Ankara have shared interests in eroding American power in Syria now that the war on Isis is winding down and the front lines hardening. In addition, Turkey, Russia and Iran have held a series of talks over the last year discussing common agendas in their version of regional stability. They want to own the post-Isis Middle East and the US is in the way.

While the US – and other members of the anti-Isis coalition – see the Syrian Democratic Forces as key partners against the caliphate in Syria, Turkey has tended to view the YPG (which is one component of the SDF) as 'terrorists' affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party. Last month, after the US announced it was training up to 30,000 local security forces in northeastern Syria, Turkey accused America of creating a 'terror army'. Turkey has been threatening to clear the YPG from its border for a year, but it knows that this risks clashing directly with the US. Turkish military action in Afrin was calculated in the assumption that this wouldn't lead to a direct fight, given that the Kurdish enclave is isolated from the other Kurdish areas of Syria. Yet Turkey still wanted this military action to send a clear message to the US: that there is a red line in Syria. Bozdag's latest warning is a sign that Turkish hearts are hardening against the US.

Of course, Russia is only too happy to encourage this growing hostility towards the US. The Afrin conflict makes the US look weak on protecting its allies. This has given Russian state media the chance to mock the US's 'double standards' for not standing up to Ankara. 

Afrin, one of the few areas of Syria to know relative peace since 2011, has now been plunged into conflict in the last weeks. It is paying the price of the rivalry between the US, Turkey, Russia and Syria. The unprecedented decision by Ankara to escalate the Syrian conflict by opening this new front went smoothly because of the international communities inertia on the Syrian conflict. After seven years and the defeat of Isis, most countries see a black hole of hopeless suffering and don’t believe the conflict can be solved. Much of the current diplomacy has been outsourced to Russia at meetings like Sochi and Astana, where Russia, Iran and Turkey decide the future of Syria. The US, which supports the multi-ethnic, secular SDF, has not been included. That’s not good news. The international coalition needs to step up to support the SDF and make sure they have a role in the future of Syria as more than just pawns to be sacrificed. But does the US have the stomach for the fight?