Syrian children in rebel-held Azaz, northern Syria hold a banner reading ‘Killer – Trump is a killer of children’ during a demonstration in support of Turkey’s military operation in Afrin on Friday. Photo: Nazeer al-Khatib/AFP
The United States' support for the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) has irked the Turks since it began in late 2014, necessitated by the lethal threat ISIS posed at the time, and consequently strained Ankara-Washington relations. The US has sought to balance its decades-old relationship with its NATO ally on the one hand and its more ad-hoc relationship with the Syrian Kurds on the other. This balancing act has become much more difficult for Washington to sustain in the past few years and is now seeing its Turkish ally threatening to derail the American's latest project there.
Ankara's latest fulmination is over Washington's plan to train a 30,000-strong YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) force of border-guards. Erdogan has vowed to prevent this from getting off the ground.
"This is what we have to say to all our allies: don't get in between us and terrorist organizations, or we will not be responsible for the unwanted consequences," Erdogan warned. "Don't force us to bury in the ground those who are with terrorists."
"Our operations will continue until not a single terrorist remains along our borders, let alone 30,000," he added, in a not so subtle warning to the Americans.
Since then Washington has sought to placate the Turks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stressing that the planned SDF force "was not properly described" and the US is "not creating a border security force at all." Rather, the new force Washington is training, a US military statement read, will be "internally focused."
This latest bellicose rhetoric and hints of threats against the Americans in Syria by Ankara was the worst since April 2017, when the Turks bombed a YPG headquarters in Jazira Canton near American troop positions without giving Washington any adequate forewarning – the simultaneous strike on Shingal that same day aimed at the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) accidentally killed two Peshmerga troops. Erdogan's chief advisor on Kurdish affairs, Ilnur Cevik, said that Ankara would be justified if a future strike against the YPG accidentally killed Americans troops in those areas. While he later walked back that comment it nonetheless demonstrated Turkey's deep-seated frustration with the Americans.
Erdogan's comments threatening to foil the Americans’ initiative is also a departure from his government's past handling of the US-YPG alliance against ISIS – which was one of opposing that alliance but also offering alternatives to the Americans.
For example, while Erdogan refused to let the Americans and the coalition use Incirlik Airbase in southeast Turkey to target ISIS and relieve the siege on Kobane, he did later assent to letting Peshmerga troops cross Turkish territory (it was impossible to reach Kobane overland from the Kurdistan Region, through Jazira Canton, in those days since ISIS occupied Gire Spi/Tal Abyad) with heavy weapons to help the YPG repel ISIS, afflicting the militants with their first major setback and defeat.
When Turkey finally let the Americans use Incirlik in the summer of 2015 it was largely so Ankara could have carte blanche to once again crackdown hard on the PKK, after the ceasefire brokered in early 2013 foundered. While there were frequent murmurs in Turkey of once again denying the Americans usage of the airbase the coalition were able to use it to give decisive air support to the SDF/YPG – enabling them to capture Raqqa and large swathes of Deir ez-Zor from ISIS and effectively dealing a deathblow to the caliphate in Syria.
Turkey, it's worth remembering, also initially acquiesced to the SDF/YPG offensive against ISIS-occupied Manbij throughout the summer of 2016, despite their red-line over the YPG crossing to the west bank of the Euphrates River, urging the Americans to guarantee that only Arab members of the SDF would spearhead the operation. Upon concluding its Euphrates Shield operation in northwest Syria in late March 2017, following the brutal battle with ISIS for the city of al-Bab, Ankara threatened to move on and seize Manbij from the SDF. While this kind of rhetoric did die down for most of the rest of 2017, Erdogan is once again threatening to imminently destroy the YPG in both Afrin and Manbij.
During this time Erdogan's domestic rhetoric was indeed hostile to American action in Syria, however at the same time he sought to persuade them diplomatically to alter their course. For instance, before the launch of the Raqqa operation the Turks sought several times to convince the Americans to ditch the YPG and capture the ISIS stronghold together, using their own military forces and the Turkish-trained Free Syrian Army (FSA) proxy fighters used in Euphrates Shield. Given the disastrous failure of the train-and-equip program and the vagueness of Turkey's suggestions the Americans settled on using the SDF, much to Turkey's chagrin.
Ankara has not, at least publicly, offered any alternatives to the latest border-guard plan the Americans are trying to implement in Syria, signaling that they do not believe that diplomacy can work on the Kurdish question there. This is unfortunate since Turkey's input is essential for the continued security of northwest Syria, since it has both the power to destabilize it through attacks and invasion or to make it work. Therefore, placating Turkey is essential to stave off a major attack that could destabilize that region at a critical time when ISIS is subdued and the war in Syria appears to be nearing an end.
One possible solution could be for Washington to pressure the Syrian Kurdish authorities to permit the Rojava Peshmerga trained by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to return to Syrian Kurdistan and help defend its borders – particularly the border with Iraq to prevent ISIS remnants from moving back and forth. Also, minimizing the visible SDF/YPG presence on the border with Turkey and deploying some Rojava Peshmerga there, as well as some US Army Rangers to deter clashes as they successfully did in Manbij back in March 2017, could help defuse the situation.
The Rojava Peshmerga's political wing, the Kurdistan National Council (ENKS), has demonstrated that it is only interested in defending Syria's Kurdish regions and not fighting over another inch Syrian soil outside of them.
While the solution would certainly be far from perfect it may prove less contentious for both Ankara and Damascus and is therefore more likely to succeed without incident.
For now, with no such compromise in sight, Ankara and Washington remain on a collision course which could prove fatal for both their longstanding strategic relationship and the future of northern Syria.