US forces, accompanied by Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters, drive their armoured vehicles near the northern Syrian village of Darbasiyah, on the border with Turkey.

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US begins patrols along Turkey-Syria border

Turkey is concerned about the US alliance with YPG, whom they consider to be terrorists

Istanbul CNN  — 

The stars and stripes fluttered in the spring breeze as the column of American armored vehicles rumbled through the village. Men, women and children waved the V for victory sign. Women ululated. The soldiers on board waved back.

It was one of those hero’s welcomes that plays well in the United States. In a region where American troops have been killed by the thousands, here was a rare friendly reception.

On Saturday, American troops in northeastern Syria made a very public display of patrolling with their Kurdish allies near the Syrian-Turkish border as tensions flare over American support for Kurds fighting ISIS.

The United States is trying to stop two allies – Turkey and the Syrian Kurds – from mauling one another on the margins of the bloodiest, most intractable conflict of the 21st century.

It’s all part of a high stakes power play in an already absurdly complicated conflict that has sucked in the world’s great powers, and a lot of the lesser ones.

An officer, from the US-led coalition stands alongside Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) at the site of Turkish airstrikes on YPG positions in Syria.

In the month of April alone the United States and its coalition allies, plus Russia, Turkey and Israel, have launched air or missile strikes on targets in Syria.

In addition to Syrian forces – both those loyal and opposed to the regime – there are troops from Russia, the United States, Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon (Hezbollah) operating in Syria, as well as irregulars from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Special forces from the UK, France and other NATO countries are probably also operating in the country. Others, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, are actively supporting factions in the Syrian war. And there is a veritable United Nations of nationalities represented in the ranks of ISIS in Syria.

More than 400,000 people have been killed in this six-year-old conflict. More than five million have fled into exile. More than six million have been internally displaced. The war has demolished the economy. Much of Syria is in ruins.

The Americans are in northeast Syria to support their local allies in the war against ISIS. They operate under the umbrella of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes Syrian Arabs and Assyrian Christians, but many more Syrian Kurds from the YPG, the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units.

Kurds wave flags as a medical helicopter, from the US-led coalition, flies over the site of Turkish airstrikes near northeastern Syrian Kurdish town of Derik, known as al-Malikiyah in Arabic, on April 25, 2017.

The YPG is the Syrian branch of the Turkish Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, a Marxist group which has been at war since 1984 trying to carve out a separatist state from Turkey, a US ally and key NATO member. Both Turkey and the United States have branded the PKK as a terrorist group.

US support of the Kurds in Syria has enraged Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey.

Erdogan says he is “seriously concerned to see US flags in a convoy that has YPG rags on it,” referring to the YPG’s banner. Erdogan made his remarks to reporters at Ataturk International Airport before departing on a visit to India, according to Turkish state news agency Anadolu.

Erdogan said Ankara is gravely concerned by pictures of US soldiers attending funerals for YPG “terrorists,” as he calls them, killed in Turkish airstrikes against PKK/YPG targets in Syria and northern Iraq on April 25. Erdogan said he “will mention these issues to President Trump” when the two men meet later in May.

Last August, Turkey launched operation Euphrates Shield, in which Turkish forces, backing Turkish-supported factions of the Free Syrian Army, the FSA, drove ISIS out of the Syrian border town of Jarablus.

Turkey sees both the PKK and ISIS as terrorist organizations, and has made it clear it will oppose, by all means necessary, a PKK-affiliated entity such as the YPG controlling large and expanding swaths of territory on its more than 800-kilometer-long border with Syria.

Turkish forces and their Syrian allies have divided their time between fighting ISIS and fighting US-backed Kurdish forces.

The SDF, which is dominated by elements of the YPG (yes, it’s alphabet soup), has been effective, with US-led coalition support, in clearing ISIS out of large parts of northeastern Syria – and until this latest flare up of tensions, was gearing up for the final offensive against the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa on the Euphrates River. That effort may now be on hold as this complicated web of alliances begins to fray.

Speaking from Baghdad, Colonel John Dorrian, a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, said the Turkish airstrikes in Syria and Iraq were conducted without the proper coordination with the coalition operating in Iraq and Syria.

He said there was “less than one hour notification before the strikes. We believe that’s inadequate. That’s not enough time.” Dorrian said the notice given was “inadequate to ensure the safety of our forces.”

According to eyewitnesses, American troops in Syria began patrolling near the border with Turkey on Saturday, in an attempt, perhaps, to dissuade Turkey from taking offensive action against the YPG inside Syria.

They also appeared to have entered or skirted the city of Qamishli.

I’ve been there many times, most recently in December 2015. Qamishli has been spared the violence and destruction of the Syrian war, largely due to an unwritten agreement between the regime in Damascus and the YPG.

The Syrian regime maintains a very visible presence in the city, where you can see large portraits of President Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafiz, who passed away in 2000. Syrian officers and soldiers roam the city freely, and there are unconfirmed reports of Russian forces in the city’s regime enclave and airport.

To sum it all up, it’s a God-awful mess. Whoever is trying to sort it all out will need the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon.