WASHINGTON — Turkish officials offered to provide "tens of thousands of troops" to support the US-led fight against the Islamic State (IS) during high-level talks last year regarding potential military cooperation in Syria, Turkey's envoy to the United States said today.
Ambassador Serdar Kilic told Al-Monitor that Turkish officials met with Pentagon commanders in July 2016, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford, about military collaboration in Raqqa and throughout Syria. Kilic made the comments at an embassy press conference marking the first anniversary of last year's failed coup, which Ankara blames on US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the Donald Trump administration — like its predecessor — has so far declined to extradite.
"Each and every time we made the [troop] proposal, we received the same arguments,” Kilic said, adding that the Pentagon preliminarily asked for 80,000 troops for the Raqqa operation, more than Turkish officials believed was needed. “We did not give any troop numbers because we did not get to the planning stage."
Defense Department officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Kilic also chastised the United States for arming and equipping the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have been spearheading the battle to liberate the IS stronghold since it was launched in November 2016. Kurdish fighters make up about 40% of the SDF force, US commanders say, and Turkey strongly opposes the regional Kurdish push for an independent state.
"That was a strategic mistake,” Kilic said. “The operation to liberate Raqqa could have been done by the US and Turkey.”
“If you’re going to be successful in your fight against a terrorist organization, you should not collaborate with another terrorist organization,” Kilic said. Turkey accuses the SDF's main Kurdish element, the People's Protection Units, of being affiliated with Turkey's banned Kurdistan Workers Party, which is designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the US State Department.
Turkey remains a full-fledged NATO member and enjoys ongoing military dialogues with the United States. Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, said the Defense Department maintains a database organized by the serial numbers of the weapons and vehicles that are being provided to the SDF and has been transparent with Ankara about that assistance, which Turkish officials have insisted should eventually be returned to the United States.
Kilic said Operation Euphrates Shield, in which Ankara supported rebel Free Syrian Army forces against IS and Kurdish fighters in northern Syria near the Turkish border, could have provided a blueprint for a combined military operation. Turkey said it could have mobilized similar groups for the fight against IS in and around Raqqa.
But Ankara's record in mobilizing fighters against IS is up for debate.
“It’s made a lot of public noise about the local Syrian police it has trained. It’s made a lot of noise about the services it’s seeking to supply. It’s made a lot of noise about being a convenient logistical supply line,” said Nicholas Heras, a fellow focused on the Middle East at the Center for a New American Security. “Turkey depends upon borrowing fighters that are actually in northwestern Syria and melding them into an armed opposition force. But they’re not necessarily the most effective hold force.”
Although Operation Euphrates Shield officially ended in March, Turkish military forces still have a presence in northern Syria. Kilic indicated those troops will stay in place for the foreseeable future.
“They don’t want the soft power of being the conduit for humanitarian assistance,” Heras said. “Turkey wants to have hard power. Turkey has sought to create a sort of Syrian proxy force that isn’t beholden to any location but is really beholden to Turkey.”