Today's D Brief: SDF stop patrols with US in Syria; What Erdogan wants; F-15s leaving Okinawa; More DPRK sanctions; And a bit more.
The U.S. military’s partners in Syria just suspended all joint operations with the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS terrorists in the region, officials from the Syrian Democratic Forces told Reuters on Friday.
Why? The Turkish military is preparing a ground invasion into Kurdish-held lands in northern Syria. (Kurds are often referred to as the world’s largest stateless ethnic group.) And this new long-teased invasion is the latest in a series of Syrian incursions over the past several years as Ankara’s military looks to crush a Kurdish insurgency that’s been simmering since the 1980s and has featured dozens of deadly attacks inside Turkey carried out by militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. The last time Turkey’s military overtly entered northern Syria was back in October 2019 during Ankara’s Operation Peace Spring.
The critical link: The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are at least partly composed of Kurdish fighters organized under the Kurdish People’s Defense Units, known as the YPG. And they’ve been particularly useful for the U.S. military as they operate inside Syria—against the publicly-declared wishes of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus, which itself has been fighting a civil war against numerous factions, including ISIS, for more than a decade.
More recently, Ankara attacked Kurdish elements with cross-border airstrikes and long-range artillery in both Syria and Iraq during the month of November in an operation Turkey dubbed “Claw Sword.” According to the BBC, dozens of people were reportedly killed in Syria alone after the strikes, which followed a bombing on the streets of Istanbul that killed six people on 13 November. The SDF, YPG, and PKK all denied involvement in the attack; and each accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of leveraging the bombing as a pretext to launch a new ground invasion into northern Syria—roughly six months ahead of Turkey’s upcoming general election in June, which could see Erdogan cling to power for a third consecutive four-year term.
Erdogan’s goal with the operation is to remove all Kurdish people “from within thirty kilometers (18.6 miles) of the Turkish border, at least west of the Euphrates River,” writes Rich Outzen of the Atlantic Council. By establishing this “safe zone,” Erdogan is hoping to “enable refugee returns, and ensure Turkish influence over eventual political arrangements to end the war in Syria.” What’s more, Outzen argues, there’s not all that much standing in Turkey’s way—including both the Americans and the Russians. And that contributes to a “betting line in Ankara…that ground operations west of the Euphrates will be tacitly tolerated if modest in scope and careful in execution.” Read more, here; or check out a similar analysis with an eye on Turkish politics from Aaron Stein of War on the Rocks on Wednesday, writing on Twitter.
Recall that Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin rang his Turkish counterpart on Wednesday to discourage a new ground offensive in northern Syria. The next day, Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters, “We are operating at a reduced number of partnered patrols with the SDF,” but the patrols had not been stopped by that point. It would be only hours later that the SDF made that call, according to Reuters.
“We certainly do recognize Turkey's valid security concerns when it comes to protecting their people inside their borders,” Ryder said at the Pentagon. “But again, the focus here is on preventing a destabilizing situation which would put ISIS in an ability to reconstitute, and no one wants to go back to what we saw in 2014 with a terrorist group running amok and taking large swathes of land with thousands and thousands of people killed.”
- “How U.S. Support for Syrian Kurds Actually Benefits Erdogan,” via Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, writing Wednesday in Foreign Policy;
- “Civilian Killed In Iraq Strike Blamed On Turkey,” Agence France-Presse reported Friday;
- “These economies [including Turkey’s] are booming as Putin’s war drives migrants and money out of Russia,” via CNBC, reporting one week ago;
- And “Erdogan’s Goal of Turkey Export Boom at Risk as Trade Gap Widens,” Bloomberg reported Friday.
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Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. And check out other Defense One newsletters here. On this day in 1954, the U.S. signed a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan.
North Korea was just hit with new sanctions from the U.S., South Korea, and Japan following Pyongyang’s most prolific missile testing year to date—launching more than 60 ballistic missiles since January, according to the State Department.
Newly sanctioned: Jon Il Ho, who chairs a North Korean defense research entity; as well as Yu Jin and Kim Su Gil, who are both members of the same committee as Jon. “The European Union designated all three earlier this year, noting that Jon and Yu both have played a role in the DPRK’s WMD programs and have participated in multiple ballistic missile launches,” U.S. State Secretary Tony Blinken said in a statement Thursday. And Kim has carried out orders “related to the development of the DPRK’s unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” according to Foggy Bottom.
According to the White House, “Sanctions have been successful in slowing down the development of its unlawful weapons programs,” National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement Friday. “We will continue to coordinate closely with our allies and partners to address the threats posed by the DPRK and to advance our shared objective of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” she added.
Developing: Japan is set to nearly double its defense budget over the next five years, rising from a plan that was believed to cost 27.5 trillion yen to a new one with a price tag of as much as 43 trillion yen, or $318 billion, Reuters reported Friday from Tokyo.
From the region: Bye-bye, USAF Eagles in Okinawa. The first F-15s have left Kadena Air Base for good, as part of a phased withdrawal of all the aging F-15C-Ds from the base on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The jets—which have operated continuously from Kadena for more than 40 years—will be retired, and there’s no permanent replacement planned for the fleet. However, the Air Force has said it will use temporary deployments of more advanced aircraft to fill the gap; the F-22s scheduled for the first such deployment arrived in Okinawa last month.
“While I’m sad to see the F-15 go, it’s important to maintain an advanced fighter presence here in Okinawa,” the aptly named commander of the Kadena-based 18th Wing, Brig. Gen. David Eaglin, said in a statement. “Our adversaries have advanced and progressed since 1979 [when Kadena received its first F-15], and we must do the same.”
In addition to F-15s, the 18th Wing flies KC-135 Stratotankers, HH-60 helicopters, and E-3 airborne early warning and control system (aka AWACS) planes.
Opinions on the move are mixed, but Stacie Pettyjohn of CNAS in late October discouraged jumping to conclusions about the meaning of the withdrawal. Read her thoughts on why “this does not weaken deterrence vs China and should not be seen as a lack of US commitment to allies and partners in the region,” here. And read RAND’s David Ochmanek case for why the change is “an opportunity to change Indo-Pacific air tactics with unmanned options,” here.
Lastly this week, a peek behind the curtain from Palmdale, Calif. The U.S. Air Force and Northrop Grumman will unveil the B-21 Raider for the first time tonight. Watch the roll out live on Defense One’s site, here. And follow Global Business Editor Marcus Weisgerber on Twitter as he catches it all in person.
Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!