The Syrian civil war remains a key arena in the overall troubled relationship between the United States and Turkey. The latest reports of Turkish troop deployments adjacent to the Syrian border factor into the broader tensions right now between Ankara and Washington.
The U.S. Department of Defense, reacting to reports that Turkey has been amassing troops along its border with northeastern Syria over the past several days, warned Ankara on July 13 against making any unilateral military moves into areas of Syria held by the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Why It Matters
A Turkish military incursion into the SDF-controlled portions of Syria where U.S. troops also maintain a presence would deal another significant blow to U.S.-Turkish relations, not to mention raising the risk of an accidental clash between Turkish and U.S. forces. But there is reason to believe that Turkey wouldn't actually conduct such an operation at this time. A more likely explanation for the troop movements would be an effort by Ankara to build leverage for some sort of negotiations because the United States could soon decide to impose sanctions and other measures against Turkey after the arrival of the S-400 air defense equipment purchased from Russia. Nevertheless, a cross-border incursion by Turkey cannot be ruled out, especially if the United States does impose sanctions. In that case, the Turks could move forward with the operation as a means of retaliation.
This is certainly not the first time that Ankara has beefed up its troop presence on its border with Syria. In previous instances, the Turkish military has subsequently withdrawn. This buildup is reportedly close to Tal Abyad, an SDF-held zone. The continuing possibility of a Turkish incursion further underlines the U.S. conundrum in its efforts to draw down its presence from the area but maintain sufficient allied forces to deter a Turkish incursion. It is also possible that Ankara hopes to deter European commitments to deploy troops in Syria by highlighting the continued risk that forces in the SDF areas face. Regardless of the motive behind the current Turkish deployment, whether a genuine desire to cut the SDF forces down to size or influence U.S. or European actions or a mixture of all the above, the Turkish moves highlight how the Syrian conflict remains particularly susceptible to sudden flashpoints between global and regional powers.