ERBIL, Iraq—Turkey and the United States might be headed for a showdown: NATO army against NATO army—the two biggest armies, in fact, in the alliance.
But this is the Middle East, where nothing is simple. And precisely because the potential for catastrophic violence is so high, conflicts often fester rather than explode. The scene of the looming confrontation, moreover, is Syria—a battleground where alliances, allegiances, tactics, and strategies shift like flow charts seen through a kaleidoscope.
The proximate cause of the looming crisis is an offensive by the Turkish army and forces it supports against the largely Kurdish-controlled city of Afrin in Syria’s Aleppo province near the Turkish border.
The offensive started over the weekend after U.S. officials revealed plans last week to stay in Syria and develop what was described as a “border force” of some 30,000 Syrian Kurdish soldiers. This was portrayed in Washington as a key development in the Trump administration’s strategy to keep the so-called Islamic State from coming back and help displaced people return to their homes. Some 2,000 American troops are on the ground in Syria in Kurdish-controlled regions to advise, assist, and help to organize the forces there.
Yet by the end of the week—facing Turkish outrage—the Trump administration was backpedaling frantically, rushing to say this wouldn’t be a “conventional” border force. Administration officials told The Wall Street Journal “the plan was poorly conceived and won’t proceed as previously outlined by the military.”
The fact of the matter is that the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters played a central role defeating the so-called Islamic State on the ground in what was once its “caliphate”: a victory for which the Trump administration is quick to claim credit. And some of those same Kurdish fighters, known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG, are the ones now under Turkish assault in Afrin.
The Turks insist the YPG is a terrorist organization allied to the PKK guerrillas who have waged a decades-long war against Ankara. The YPG and the Pentagon have denied this.