Turkey Invades Syria; US Warns Kurdish Groups To Withdraw To Northeast

August 24, 2016
The race for northern Syria. Map by LiveUAMap.com

LIVE UPDATES: The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

Rebel Groups Supported By Turkey and US Reportedly Clash With US-Backed Kurdish Group In Northern Syria

We’ve been covering the Turkish intervention in Syria today, and have warned that Turkey, a NATO ally, or the rebel groups that it supports could conceivably clash with the SDF, the group that the US has armed, trained and supported in the fight against Islamic State (see below).

According to some accounts, those clashes have now taken place. 

The spokesman for the YPG has also clarified his statements made earlier — the YPG will not retreat from the territory it controls. The question becomes, then, whether or not the SDF and the YPG are really two different organizations, or are they just the same force with different names that can shift depending on what the battlefield calls for.
James Miller
Assad Government Condemns Turkey’s Invasion Of Syria; Russia “Concerned”

Turkish tanks prepare to enter Syria | AP/Reuters

The Syrian government has condemned Turkey’s intervention in northern Aleppo province as a “blatant violation” of Syrian sovereignty. The Washington Post reports:

In a statement carried by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, the government said that “any move to combat terrorism on Syrian territories should have been coordinated with the Syrian government and army.” Syria demanded an immediate end to the Turkish “aggression,” which it said was being carried out under the pretext of fighting terrorism. 

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Turkey launches operation against Islamic State-held town on border

Turkish and U.S.-backed coalition forces have launched a military operation against the Islamic State in the Syrian border town of Jarabulus, the prime minister's office said Wednesday. They're using warplanes and artillery to pound the militants in their last stronghold on the once-porous Turkish border and just hours before Vice President Biden was due to arrive in Turkey.

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Aug 24, 2016 21:02 (GMT)

Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not outright condemned the Turkish move, but has expressed “concern” (translation by The Interpreter):

Moscow is deeply concerned about the events in the area of the Syrian-Turkish border. Above all, there is cause for alarm in the possibility of further degradation of the situation in the conflict zone, including the taking into account of possible collateral victims among the civilian population and the worsening of inter-ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs.

We are convinced that the Syrian crisis can be settled exclusively on the firm foundation of international law, through a broad intra-Syrian dialogue with the participation of all ethno-confessional groups, including the Kurds, on the basis of the principles of the Geneva Communique of June 30,2012, Resolution 2254 and other decisions of the UN Security Council taken at the initiative of the International Support Group for Syria.

Of course, Russia’s expressed concern for civilian lives is to be taken with a grain of salt, as a new report indicates that in just one year Russian airstrikes have killed more civilians in Syria than the Islamic State has in its entire existence. It is more likely that Russia is concerned with how the territory that Turkey controls will ever be returned to the Assad regime which Russia has spent so much blood, treasure, and political capital to safeguard.

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Report: In less than a year, Russia has killed more civilians than ISIS

A new report from a United Nations-sanctioned human rights group finds that Russian airstrikes have killed more Syrian civilians than ISIS. Over a span of 305 days, beginning September 30, 2015 and lasting until July 31, 2016, Russia's campaign in Syria "has killed no less than 2,704 civilians including 746 children and 514 women."

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Aug 24, 2016 21:10 (GMT)

James Miller, Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
US Tells Kurds To Withdraw In Syria, Kurdish Group Rebuffs Request

As we reported earlier (see previous update below) US Vice President Joe Biden, who is in Turkey, has told Kurdish groups to withdraw to the Euphrates River. The request is a response to an advance by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed group which is mainly made up of fighters from the YPG, a group associated with the PKK. Turkey considers both the YPG and the PKK to be a terrorist organizations. Turkey, a NATO ally, also believes that there is little distinction between the two groups. The US, on the other hand, considers the PKK a terrorist organization, but not the YPG.

For more on the SDF, see this explainer published by RFE/RL:


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The Syrian Kurds Could Be A Key Ally In The Fight Against Islamic State

QAMISHLI, Syria — The Kurds have never been lucky with geography, being landlocked and divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. However, due to the Syrian crisis and the threat of an Islamic caliphate bordering Kurdish areas in Syria, the Syrian Kurds have become one of the most reliable coalition allies against the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

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Aug 24, 2016 20:28 (GMT)

For more on how the US reliance on the SDF to fight Islamic State is somewhat problematic, see my article for the same column:

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The Hidden Dangers Of The Fight Against Islamic State

Even if Islamic State is defeated quickly in Fallujah, there is a risk that sectarian tension could be inflamed further in the process. Defeating IS militarily is just the first step toward healing Iraq's and Syria's sectarian wounds and ensuring that another, similar group does not emerge.

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Aug 24, 2016 20:29 (GMT)

A major Kurdish leader, from the YPG, has replied to Biden’s request by stressing that the YPG and the SDF are different organizations, and Biden’s request can only apply to the SDF since that is the only group that is receiving US assistance. Reuters reports:

Turkey’s military intervention in Syria is a “blatant aggression in Syrian internal affairs”, and results from an agreement between it, Iran and Syria’s government, Redur Xelil, the spokesman for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said on Wednesday.

Xelil added that Turkish demands for the YPG to pull back east of the Euphrates could only be answered by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed coalition against Islamic State of which the Kurdish group is a major part.

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Syrian Kurdish YPG calls Turkish operation 'blatant aggression'

World News | Wed Aug 24, 2016 6:17am EDT BEIRUT Turkey's military intervention in Syria is a "blatant aggression in Syrian internal affairs", and results from an agreement between it, Iran and Syria's government, Redur Xelil, the spokesman for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said on Wednesday.

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Aug 24, 2016 20:31 (GMT)

By deeming the Turkish advance, which was supported by the US, as a “blatant aggression,” Xelil is opening up the possibility that Turkey and the rebels that it supports could come into direct contact with YPG forces, potentially creating yet another front to this already complicated conflict.

James Miller

Turkey Invades Syria; Biden Warns Kurds To Retreat

Some of the biggest headlines of the entire Syrian conflict have taken place in just the last 12 hours.

Turkey, a member of the NATO alliance, has invaded northern Syria. Turkish tanks and soldiers crossed the border and attacked territory controlled by the so-called Islamic State near Jarablus, about 95 kilometers northeast of Aleppo city.

The BBC reports:

Military sources told Turkish media 70 targets in the Jarablus area had been destroyed by artillery and rocket strikes, and 12 by air strikes.

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels are accompanying the Turkish advance.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the operation was aimed against both IS and Kurdish fighters.

The Turkish intervention comes in the wake of significant advances made by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a largely-Kurdish group that has been backed by the US in the fight against IS. Clearly, Turkey is concerned about the gain of territory by the SDF, which is associated with the YPG, which is in turn associated with the PKK, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist group. 

To put this in context, Jarablus is in the top part of this map, made by LiveUAMap, where most of today’s activity has taken place. Kurdish territory is in yellow, IS territory is grey, anti-Assad rebels are in green,  and the Syrian regime’s territory is in red: 

US Vice President Joe Biden is in Turkey right now, likely not a coincidence. The Associated Press reports that Biden has warned the Kurdish groups to withdraw to the Euphrates River:

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is calling on Syrian Kurdish forces to move back across the Euphrates River, telling them they will lose U.S. support if they don’t.

Speaking at a press conference in Ankara on Wednesday, Biden says Kurdish forces “must move back across the Euphrates River.”

He says “they cannot — will not — under any circumstance get American support if they do not keep that commitment.”

Biden indirectly expressed support for the Turkish operation launched Wednesday to clear Islamic State militants from the town of Jarablus and deter Kurds from further expanding in northern Syria.

The Latest: Turkish report says ground forces enter Syria

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) – The Latest developments in the civil war in Syria (all times local): 9 a.m. A Turkish media report says a small number of Turkish special forces have crossed into Syria as part of a Turkish operation to rid a Syrian border town of Islamic State group militants.

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Aug 24, 2016 20:01 (GMT)

Reports indicate that IS withdrew from the area either after or during US airstrikes on their positions. The town of Jarablus is now entirely or mostly under control of the Turkish and rebel forces, according to various sources.

This is breaking news. More updates and analysis will be forthcoming.

James Miller