Why the Turkey-Syria border conflict is a ‘proxy war’ for US-Russia

In Depth: America sidelined as Nato ally Turkey attacks US-backed Kurdish fighters

Turkish-backed fighters north of the Syrian town of Azaz, near the border
(Image credit: NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images)

Ankara today announced its first two combat deaths in Turkey’s clash with US-backed Kurdish fighters south of the border in Syria - a battle many see as a proxy war pitting Russian military might against a weakened America.

“Relations between Turkey and Russia have been gradually getting closer in the context of the Syria conflict, whereas tensions have been rising between Ankara and Washington, which backs the Kurdish fighters in northern Syria,” reports Al Jazeera.

The armed conflict began on Saturday and pits America against its fellow Nato member in a territory where US diplomatic ties have been sorely tested already by the wars in Syria and Iraq.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

“The Turkish offensive, carried out over the protests of the US but with the apparent assent of Russia, marks a perilous new phase in relations between two Nato allies - bringing their interests into direct conflict on the battlefield,” The New York Times says. “It lays bare how much leverage the United States has lost in Syria, where its single-minded focus has been on vanquishing Islamist militants.”

The ties that bind

Historically, Russia has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has waged a seven-year war against the dual threat of Islamic State militants and the Syrian rebels who want to overthrow his regime.

And now Moscow has entered into an “agreement” with Ankara on the border war against US-backed Kurdish fighters, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday.

The US, meanwhile, supported Syrian rebels trying to overthrow Assad during the Obama regime - although the Trump administration appears to have pulled back from such covert operations, The Atlantic magazine reports.

Crucially, however, the US announced plans last week to train up a 30,000-strong border protection force in northern Syria to prevent Isis from returning. That border force will consist mainly of members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) - considered by the Turkish government to be a terrorist group.

Offensive Olive Branch

President Erdogan has accused the US of building an “army of terror” on his border. After threatening to drown the US-backed forces, Erdogan launched “Offensive Olive Branch” in northwestern Syria this weekend.

The bloody conflict has so far left 50 people dead during three days of intense shelling and air strikes, The Guardian reports.

It has also left the US watching from the sidelines, The New York Times reports, while Russia aligns itself with Turkey and accuses the US of encouraging the Kurds and aggravating the Syrian conflict.

So far, the Turkish border operations are confined to targets around Afrin, a region about 30 miles north of Aleppo that is of limited strategic concern to the US.

Syrian expert Andrew J. Tabler told the newspaper that the big question is whether Turkey will push further into Syria.

“That could bring Turkey into conflict with the main force of Kurds, and even potentially, with American troops,” Tabler said.

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us