U.S. launches last-ditch effort to stop Turkish invasion of northeast Syria

Syrian Kurdish officials say they have built concrete tunnels along the border, such as this one in the countryside of Hasakah, to prepare for a possible attack by the Turkish army. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)

The Trump administration has launched a last-ditch effort to head off a Turkish invasion of northeast Syria that it expects will come within the next two weeks.

With tens of thousands of Turkish troops massed near the border, a high-level Defense Department delegation plans to present what U.S. officials describe as a final offer to address Turkey’s concerns at a meeting Monday in Ankara.

The meeting marks the climax of a years-long dispute between the two NATO allies over U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish fighters who have led the ground war against the Islamic State, but whom Turkey considers a terrorist threat to its own security. Kurdish-led victories against the militant group have effectively left them in control of much of the border area.

Failure of the U.S. effort could throw the war-devastated region into even deeper turmoil, endangering efforts to rout Islamic State remnants and President Trump’s goal of withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria.

The proposal includes a joint U.S.-Turkish military operation to secure a strip south of the Syria-Turkey border that would be about nine miles deep and 87 miles long and from which the Kurdish fighters would be withdrawn.

The U.S. and Turkish militaries would destroy Kurdish fortifications and then jointly patrol the area, located in the middle third of the northeastern border stretching between the Euphrates River and Iraq. The other two-thirds would be cleared later.

An underground medical facility set up by the Kurdish Red Crescent in a town in Hasakah province, near the Turkish border. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)

Turkey has already rejected those parameters, insisting on a “safe zone” at least 20 miles deep and expressing a preference to control it alone. The Turkish government is also looking to establish areas that would allow the safe return of some of the more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

It is not the first time Turkey has threatened an invasion. But this time, the threat is real and imminent, according to U.S., Turkish, Kurdish and European officials, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the volatile situation.

“Now we are going to enter [Syria] east of the Euphrates,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday at a ceremony opening a highway and hospital in the city of Bursa. “We have shared this with Russia and the United States,” he added. “We can only be patient for so long.”

If Turkey refuses the U.S. entreaty, the administration has made clear that it cannot, under existing congressional authorities, intervene to protect the Kurdish fighters. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG in the Kurdish abbreviation, dominate the more than 60,000-strong army, called the Syrian Democratic Forces, that the United States equipped, trained and directed to defeat the Islamic State’s self- declared caliphate.

Adding to the extreme tension over the issue, the administration is engaged in a separate conflict with Turkey over its purchase of a sophisticated Russian missile defense system, which already has caused the United States to cancel Turkey’s participation in the manufacture and purchase of the F-35, the next-generation American stealth aircraft.

U.S. law also requires Trump to impose economic sanctions on Turkey over the Russian purchase. Trump, to the bipartisan ire of Congress, has so far avoided implementing the mandate, at least in part to keep from destroying any chance of a deal over the Kurds.

At the same time, the Kurds have warned that a fight with Turkey may leave them unable to guard makeshift prisons in eastern Syria holding Islamic State inmates. The militants — 8,000 Syrians and Iraqis and about 2,000 from other countries — were captured during operations that led to the dismantling of the caliphate earlier this year.

“Either we will fight” the Turks “or guard” the prisoners, said Aldar Xelil, a leading Kurdish politician in northeast Syria. “We cannot do both together.”

He said that Kurdish forces, who were recently visited by Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the U.S. Central Command, had agreed with the United States to withdraw from a zone limited to three miles from the border.

“Honestly, we are not using ISIS prisoners as a card” to be played, said Xelil, who was interviewed in the Syrian border city of Qamishli. “But maybe we are going to lose control here. . . . These are not like formal prisons; some of them are just schools where we built a wall and converted it into a prison.”

“If the ISIS members see that there is fighting and that Turkey has attacked . . . they will break the walls and flee,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

In northeast Syria, the Kurdish administration is preparing for war with Turkey.

Roads in border towns and cities are scarred with freshly dug tunnels, and dozens of homes have been turned into shelters. Makeshift hospitals have been built underground.