Creating new perspectives since 2009

US cuts Turkey’s access to north-east Syria airspace ahead of military campaign

October 8, 2019 at 12:54 pm

Armoured vehicles are seen as Turkey and the US start a joint ground patrols as part of efforts to establish safe zone east of Euphrates in Syria on 24 September 2019 [Emin Sansar/Anadolu Agency]

The United States (US) military has severely limited Turkey’s access to the airspace over north-east Syria, making the upcoming Turkish military operation into the area difficult without the benefit of air cover.

The US has taken a series of actions since yesterday which would potentially hinder the operation, with Pentagon spokeswoman Carla Gleason informing reporters that the Combined Air Operations Centre has removed Turkey from the anti-ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) coalition’s air tasking order, through which it coordinates the flights of member nations.

As well as removing Turkey from US coordination, it has also halted Turkey’s access to surveillance information, crippling its ability to accurately conduct aerial cover during its campaign. Gleason refused to directly declare that the air space was shut off to Turkey, but stated that “if you’re not on the air tasking order, it’s really hard to coordinate flights in that area.”

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper has also involved himself in the situation by contacting President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley, and National Security Advisor Robert O’rien, regarding Turkey’s planned military incursion into north-east Syria. The “U.S does not endorse Turkish action. The secretary of defense will be in touch with affected allies, partners and [Capitol] Hill today,” Esper said.

READ: What’s next for Syria?

The move by the US to cripple Turkish air capabilities came shorty after it gave its blessing for Turkey to proceed with the operation and started to withdraw its troops from areas in the north-east of Syria. The sudden shift in the Trump administration’s stance has confused many on all sides, reflecting the contrasting foreign policy decisions for which it has long been known.

In addition to limiting access to airspace, the US has also threatened to make Turkey an “extremely decimated economy” if its military forces harm any American troops throughout the operation. Warning of the use of his “unmatched wisdom”, Trump referred to his previous affect on the Turkish economy and the devaluing of its currency last year, during the incident in which Turkey was refusing to release a detained American pastor and was purchasing the Russian S-400 missile defence system which the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was staunchly against due to security concerns.

The military operation that is set to take place is the third Turkish incursion into northern Syria, following on from Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in 2018, and fulfils Erdogan’s statement last week that Turkey must take its own course in setting up a safe zone in Syria.

READ: Turkish lira slips to one-month low on Syria operation concerns

The move followed on from a warning by Erdogan on Saturday that the operation could be launched “maybe today or tomorrow”, and comes after months of the same threat being made on a regular basis. It also comes almost two months after the US and Turkey struck an agreement to cooperate and work together to set up a joint cooperation centre near the Syrian border in order to establish the safe zone in north-east Syria, which is the primary motivation for Turkey’s manoeuvre.

Turkey has long insisted on the establishment of the safe zone due to the presence of Kurdish militias such as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, currently entrenched east of the Euphrates River in particular and which Turkey sees as a national security threat. This, as Erdogan sees it, would achieve two things at once: the clearing of the US-backed Kurdish militias from its border region with Syria and the placement of at least two million refugees in that safe zone, providing displaced Syrians with a new home in their country of origin.

Following the announcement of the Turkish operation yesterday, Syrian opposition groups – as well as Syrian Turkmen forces – pledged their support for the operation, with Selim Idris, the Defence Secretary of Syria’s Interim Government and head of the Syrian National Army (SNA) – consisting of various Turkish-backed opposition groups – stating that “We are ready for an operation to east of the Euphrates…Purging our home of terrorists is a goal we share with our Turkish brothers.”