NATO Ally Threatens to Bomb U.S. Forces

5 May, 2017

After Turkey late last month bombed U.S.-backed forces in a border town in northern Syria killing 18 Kurdish fighters, U.S. troops were seen in the vicinity with the intent to discourage further Turkish bombings of U.S.-supported Kurdish factions. Ilnur Cevik, an advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said Wednesday, “We won’t be considering the fact that there are armored American vehicles…All of a sudden, by accident, a few rockets can hit them,” and confirmed U.S. forces operating in support of Kurdish forces in Syria could be in danger of a Turkish airstrike. Cevik subsequently stepped back from the inflammatory rhetoric, saying on Twitter, “Turkey has never and will never hit its allies anywhere, and that includes the U.S. in Syria.”

Last summer, U.S. special operations forces were spotted in Syria wearing Kurdish patches on their uniforms, and following the Turkish bombing U.S. soldiers attended the funeral for the Kurdish fighters killed in the strike. The U.S. support of Kurdish forces actively fighting with Turkey’s central government, though also with ISIS and to some extent Assad’s forces, has been a thorn in the bilateral relationship with a NATO ally, one that has become the gatekeeper to the maelstrom of conflicts in the Middle East.

Erdogan has also denounced the Shia militias, known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), fighting alongside Iraqi, Kurdish and U.S. forces in Iraq and against ISIS, as many of the PMUs receive support from Iran and have experience fighting in Syria in support of the Assad regime.

Erdogan’s attempts to stop U.S. support of Kurdish allies inevitably, perhaps ironically, worsens relations between the U.S. and Turkey. Around half of the 50,000-strong Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a loose coalition that includes U.S.-backed elements, are Syrian Kurds, many of whom are aligned with Turkish-designated terrorist groups, while the remainder of that force is comprised of Arab fighters. SDF factions have previously dealt with both Russia and the Assad regime, and, while the alliance features extremist movements including self-proclaimed communist and Marxist-Leninist Turks, the U.S only supports vetted fighters. The SDF is currently preparing to assault the ISIS stronghold and capital city of Raqqa.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army this week announced it is offering a $5,000 bonus for servicemen who choose to deploy to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Africa in a training capacity. The Army is building a new Security Forces Assistance Brigade to train aligned forces, though 360 of the 529 soldiers in the brigade are officers and are therefore ineligible for the bonus.

Currently, portions of three Army brigades are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in a training capacity while their full brigades remain in the U.S., and the new Security Forces Assistance Brigade is a clear indication, so long as the Administration continues to support the initiative, the U.S. will increasingly play a proactive role in the region, namely through the direct support of non-state allies like Kurdish forces within the SDF.

The White House is expected to release a counter-ISIS strategy in coming months, and the plan is likely to feature continued support of Kurdish fighters, which, if included, will further exacerbate U.S.-Turkish relations.

The Security Forces Assistance Brigade will be ready to deploy by the end of 2018, though the decision on where and if they will deploy to remains unmade, while a total of five Security Forces Assistance Brigades are planned to be established by 2022.