New War in Syria? U.S. Allies to Soon Be Targeted in Military Action by Turkey

Turkey has begun preparing a new military offensive in Syria, where it has opposed Kurdish fighters backed by the United States.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Wednesday that the armed forces "will begin our operations to save the east of the Euphrates from the separatist terrorist organization within a few days," referring to an upcoming campaign against the People's Protection Units (YPG). The Syrian Kurdish militia has formed a crucial part of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces' fight against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), but has been accused by Ankara of harboring ties to banned Kurdish separatist organizations at war with the Turkish state.

As part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, YPG members fight alongside U.S. troops battling ISIS, but this has not stopped certain Syrian rebels backed by Turkey from targeting them. Erdogan offered his assurances that the U.S. military would be spared.

"Our target is never American soldiers, but members of the terrorist organizations operating in the region, I also underline this point in particular," Erdogan added. "We are committed to transforming the east of the Euphrates into peaceful and livable places, such as the other parts of Syria that we have secured."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at the Turkish Defense Industry Summit at the presidential complex in Ankara, Turkey, on December 12. Turkey has accused the U.S. of supporting terrorism through its backing of Kurdish groups considered part of a separatist war at home by Ankara. OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENCY OF THE TURKISH REPUBLIC

Turkey and the U.S. both entered the protracted war in Syria as sponsors of the 2011 uprising that led to rebels and jihadis battling to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As these groups made gains against the government, however, jihadi forces rose to the forefront of the opposition, which eventually lost much of its territory to ISIS. By 2014, the U.S. gathered an international coalition to take out ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but Turkey maintained ties to insurgents that ultimately lost CIA support.

The Pentagon officially backed the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2015 as Russia joined the fight on behalf of Assad, who up to this point was only bolstered by pro-government militias, a number of which had been mobilized by Iran. One offensive by the U.S.-led coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces and another led by the Syrian government and its allies have resulted in the near-total defeat of ISIS, which remained holed up in the country's east, in pockets along the Euphrates.

It was on the eastern banks of this crucial river that the Syrian Democratic Forces have struggled to overcome the last of ISIS. As intense battles were waged in this remote pocket of Syria, Turkey has continued to protest U.S. support for the YPG and began shelling Kurdish forces near the border in October. The attacks led to a suspension in the U.S.-led ground campaign and Kurdish calls for both the coalition and the Syrian government it opposed to stepping in against Turkey.

The Pentagon had already established joint patrols with Turkish troops in the hopes of curbing further clashes between two U.S. allies, but took things a step further last month by setting up border observation posts. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar voiced his country's "unease" in response to the move, arguing that posts "would make the complicated situation in the region even more complicated."

A member of the YPG and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces holds a sniper rifle on his shoulder as he attends the funeral of a slain Kurdish commander in the northeastern city of Al-Qamishli, Syria, on December 6. Already suffering heavy casualties in their fight against ISIS, the YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces are bracing for new attacks from Turkey. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

A previous incursion by the Turkish military in January ousted Kurdish control of a section of northern Aleppo known as Afrin and led to an alliance of convenience between Kurdish fighters and pro-government forces. Both factions are opposed to the Islamist-led insurgency, but differ over the composition of a post-war Syria. Damascus has accused both Kurdish forces and their U.S. sponsors of attempting to divide the country with their aspirations of regional autonomy, a dispute that has stalled peace talks.

Turkey currently has troops deployed in support of rebels in Afrin and has set up its own observation posts tasked with maintaining an uncertain ceasefire deal between the Syrian government and the rebels and jihadis of Idlib province, the only major region still in the hands of insurgents. The agreement was reached by Ankara and Moscow and in September and has mostly held, despite an alleged chemical attack by militants against Aleppo and occasional skirmishes along the opposing lines of control.

The U.S. has so far endorsed the agreement, which came as President Donald Trump's administration threatened potential military action should the Syrian military pursue a full-scale attack on Idlib. Though the Pentagon's official mission in Syria remained limited to defeating ISIS, Washington has steadily expanded its goals to include expelling forces said to be under Iranian command. The U.S. has also demanded a political process to oust Assad, which it has accused of war crimes, but his military victories have been accompanied by a burgeoning restoration of relations in the region and beyond.