Categorized | Middle East, Syria, Turkey, World

How to Prevent Further Rifts Between the US and Turkey in Syria

By U.S. Department of State from United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Authors:

Dr Simon A. Waldman is a Mercator-IPC fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center and a visiting research fellow at King’s College London.

Engin Onuk is an intern at the İstanbul Policy Center and a masters student in the International Relations Department in İstanbul Bilgi University.

Despite Turkish backed forces capturing the Syrian city of Afrin, ties between the US and its NATO partner are unlikely to heal overnight. Relations reached such a low ebb that last month the then US secretary of state Rex Tillerson made a high stakes visit to Ankara where he established joint working groups to avoid further conflict.

The trouble is that there is not much of a relationship left to be salvaged, with bilateral ties taking quite a hit of late. Over the past year or so, Turkey has committed a series of moves which have strained relations. There was the arrest of US consulate employees and the ongoing demand that the US extradites Fethullah Gulen, Turkey’s prime suspect in the July 2016 attempted coup. In New York, a trial reached a guilty verdict against an executive of a Turkish state owned bank for evading US sanctions on Iran, which was allegedly carried out with the nod of the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey leaked the secret locations of US forces in Syria, and when visiting the US last year to meet the newly elected President Trump, Mr Erdogan’s personal guards clashed with protesters in Washington DC. The list could go on. But particularly alarming was Ankara’s incursion into Kurdish held Syrian territory, an operation which has almost been completed after Turkish backed forces captured Afrin city centre. If Turkey continues to the city of Manbij as it has threatened, the two NATO allies will be on opposite sides, with the Turkish backed Free Syrian Army ranged against the US supported People’s Protection Units (YPG).

The joint working groups are unlikely to succeed in the task of mending US-Turkish relations in the short-term. Not only are the status and views of Tillerson’s likely successor Mike Pompeo unknown, but, quite simply, the strategic priorities of the US and Turkey in the region are fundamentally different. US interests relate to stemming the rise of Iran and preventing the re-emergence of the all but defeated ISIS. In contrast, Ankara’s primary concern is the defeat of the Kurdish separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliate, the YPG, while bolstering Turkey’s regional influence.

It is going to be a hard sell for Ankara to convince either the White House, the Pentagon or State Department to cease US support for the YPG. Technically the US supports not the YPG but the umbrella group, the Syrian Democratic Forces, (SDF) of which the YPG is the predominant force. The SDF is Washington’s most effective ally in fighting ISIS and stemming Iran’s foothold in Syria. However, there is no way that Turkey will support the US position as long as the YPG, at a minimum, does not unequivocally distant itself from the PKK. But this is unlikely.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis remarked that Turkey’s operation into Afrin is a distraction against the fight against ISIS. Meanwhile, Turkey is so irate with Washington that President Erdogan has threatened to “Ottoman Slap” the US for its support of the YPG in Manbij, where Erdogan and his ministers have vowed to expand their operation but where the US has a presence on the ground. Such a move by Erdogan could potentially put US forces in the crosshairs of Turkish weaponry.

Indeed, this is perhaps the real importance of the joint working groups, preventing an unintentional clash or a more dangerous proxy war between Turkish and US forces in Syria. That is, of course, assuming that Turkey’s Afrin operation is successful. So far, the Turkish led advance has been slow and casualty prone. This begs the question, how can a potential clash between the two supposed NATO allies be averted?

A little bit of clarity would not go astray. Since the beginning of Turkey’s Afrin operation, the US has sent confused signals when responding to Turkish demands that it stop supporting the YPG. It appears that high staff turnover within President Trump’s Administration contributed to contradictory remarks made by Pentagon and White House officials. Back in November, President Trump apparently assured Turkey that the US would cease funding the YPG. But just two weeks ago it was reported that the Pentagon had earmarked additional funding for the YPG. Also, it should not be forgotten that the Obama administration stated in no uncertain terms that the YPG should withdraw to the east of the Euphrates. If the Trump Administration has reversed this policy, it owes Turkey both an explanation and reassurance.

The US should also make guarantees, public if need be, to ensure that the YPG will not pose a threat to Turkey’s security. US support for the YPG is through the umbrella SDF, supposedly unaffiliated to the PKK and also consisting of Arab fighters. This was a quick fix, a branding exercise, so that the perception of the association between the YPG and the PKK could be diluted. However, Ankara was angered when SDF Kurdish fighters raised the flag of the PKK leader in Raqqa after the removal of ISIS from its self-proclaimed capital. The US has to use its influence among Syrian Kurds to ensure that such acts are not repeated.

Meanwhile, Turkey should be clear about its military objectives in Syria. For instance, is it about pushing the YPG from Afrin, from Manbij, or beyond? Or is it about eradicating the YPG in its entirety from Syria, as is often stated by many Turkish officials and media outlets recently? Such talk may receive applause and plaudits in the media, but continually changing the goal posts during an operation makes little military sense and leaves Washington both confused and none too amused, especially when it has troops on the ground.

Ankara should also recognise when it has scored a diplomatic victory. For instance, if the US is eager to talk about safe zones in northern Syria after years of Turkish pressure, Turkey should embrace it as a significant US concession. Instead, this was casually dismissed by Turkish officials who decided instead to make additional demands. Some of these were completely unrealistic such as the insistence that US forces collect YPG arms and disband the group on both sides of the Euphrates.

Turkey should also tone down the anti-American rhetoric. Ankara’s message of anger has been heard loud and clear. Any further challenges to US policy goals in Syria, or threats of Ottoman slaps, serve no strategic purpose and can only do harm to the relationship in the long run.

For the time being, ties between the US and Turkey may not be fully repaired, but at least the two countries have taken steps to avoid a direct confrontation, raising hopes that a more permanent reconciliation can be established between the two NATO members. Turkish officials are loathed to admit it, but Ankara needs US goodwill both now and in the future.

Image courtesy of U.S. Department of State from United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Simon A. Waldman is a Mercator-IPC fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center and a visiting research fellow at King’s College London. He is the co-author of the recently published The New Turkey and Its Discontents (Oxford University Press: 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1  

Engin Onuk is an intern at the İstanbul Policy Center and a master’s student in the International Relations Department in İstanbul Bilgi University. He is currently working on his dissertation that focuses on Turkish-American relations in the context of the Syrian civil war. Twitter: @OnukEngin

Simon A. Waldman

About Simon A. Waldman

Dr Simon A. Waldman is a Mercator-IPC fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center and a visiting research fellow at King's College London. He is the co-author of the recently published The New Turkey and Its Discontents (Oxford University Press: 2017).

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