The United States and Turkey seriously disagree on most major questions on the Syrian Civil War. This divergence has eroded trust and, after Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria, has complicated American war planning to take Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de-facto capital. The two allies are now pursuing two conflicting policies in Syria and Iraq.
But policymakers in Washington should look for opportunities to take advantage of the current status quo to advance its own interests. Washington should consider publicly calling on Turkey to return to peace negotiations with elements of Turkey’s Kurdish population, while at the same time being more forceful when condemning illiberal Turkish actions against its own citizens and Americans targeted for domestic political reasons. In doing so, the United States should expect a negative Turkish response, but given the current climate, its unlikely relations could get any worse. Washington, therefore, has an incentive to be more forward leaning on issues that could help to advance American interests in neighboring Syria and Iraq.
The fundamental problem in the relationship stems from American support for the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group that has fought against the Turkish government since 1980s. The PYD’s militia, the YPG, remains the centerpiece of American military strategy in Syria. With American airpower, the group has seized considerable territory from the Islamic State and is reportedly poised to take part in an offensive for Raqqa.
Turkey’s military strategy in Syria is primarily aimed at preventing the establishment of a unitary Kurdish enclave, spanning much of its border with Syria. This has placed Ankara’s immediate military goals at odds with that of the United States and pitted a NATO ally against an American insurgent partner. The United States has for too long sought to manage Turkish concerns, pretending that the small cadre Arab fighters allied with the YPG – and fighting under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF – could assuage Turkish concerns. Efforts to try and split the difference have failed, with Turkey now threatening to oust American-backed Kurdish forces from Manbij, a city that the United States and its allied forces helped to liberate from the Islamic State a few months ago.
Coalition aircraft based in Turkey supported the Kurdish-led fight for Manbij, reportedly after the United States gave certain assurances to Ankara about the ethnic composition of the hold force. Ankara has since chastised the United States for failing to honor its commitment to oversee the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from the city. The reality is more complicated: The United States did uphold its promise to Turkey for Arab forces to administer the city, but these forces are part of the SDF, and therefore allied with the PYD and subservient to a more dominant Kurdish military force, the YPG. Turkey refuses to recognize this distinction, judging the SDF as simply another name for the YPG. The result is a vicious cycle, wherein the United States forces Turkey to acquiesce to its preferred policy, only to have Ankara turn around and criticize American action and, ultimately, threaten to oust U.S.-backed forces, and strike YPG targets and SDF targets north of Manbij and east of Marea.
These tensions could undermine plans for Raqqa, largely because Syrian Kurds could refuse to pull forces from front lines it now shares with Turkey along the border and north of Manbij, over concerns that they would leave them vulnerable to Turkish attack. The United States, however, has an overriding incentive to force the group from Raqqa, the city where the group reportedly plans its terrorist operations against Western targets, and from which rent is extracted from the local population to help finance the group’s operations. The only force currently in position to take the city is dependent on the Syrian Kurds, a reality that would all but ensure a negative Turkish response, and the potential for Turkish retaliation in other parts of Kurdish held Syria, either through the direct use of military force, or by trying to foment civil unrest in ethnically mixed areas.
The broader political implication, of course, is that Ankara could further downgrade its relations with Washington, a choice that would also impact transatlantic security relations, and the NATO alliance as a whole. A neutral Turkey, acting largely independent of its western allies benefits Russia. Moscow has a history of trying to weaken the NATO alliance through the exploitation of political and economic fissures amongst the many alliance members – a tactic the Kremlin appears to be using in Turkey, after the two sides repaired relations following Turkey’s downing of a Russian bomber in November 2015.
The United States has conflicting incentives, wherein it needs to manage relations with a difficult ally, while at the same time pursuing a tactical strategy on the ground in Syria that Turkey cannot support. The only way to address this is with bold diplomacy, centered on directly addressing the PKK-Turkish government conflict and strengthening public condemnations of illiberal Turkish government actions. In doing so, the United States can take advantage of the current tensions with Ankara. This strategy would entail a bet that Turkey will refuse to break relations with its superpower ally, in favor of an alliance with Russia or China, neither of which can provide security guarantees on par with the United States and NATO.
The United States cannot continue to support the PYD and Turkey as long as the latter is at war with the PKK. U.S. diplomacy is held hostage by the concurrent Turkish-PKK conflict in Turkey’s southeast – and therefore, any viable peace arrangement in Syria requires Turkish-Kurdish reconciliation. The Turkish government – PKK conflict began anew in July 2015, after a two-year cease-fire. Turkish and Kurdish decision-making since then has deepened tensions and contributed to a cycle of violence that shows few signs of slowing down. These dynamics have been made worse by the recent failed coup in Turkey and the subsequent rise of political nationalism, now fueling an Islamist-far right ethnic nationalist political consensus in support of a new constitution, which would include a strengthened presidential system for Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
These domestic political dynamics incentivize irresponsible commentary about foreign affairs, as well as the continued militarization of Turkey’s “Kurdish issue.” The outcome, of course, has repercussions for American policy in Syria and the war on ISIL. The fundamental problem, however, is that the United States has little leverage with Erdogan, and therefore needs to create it using creative diplomacy. In the months following the failed coup, Erdogan has managed to leverage anti-Westernism for political gain. This strategy relies on a close partnership with far-right Turkish nationalists, a constituency that views the United States with extreme skepticism, and has historically claimed that the United States was secretly supporting the PKK.
The American decision to give support to the Syrian Kurds has validated this conspiracy theory, a fact that has helped lend credence to its central claim: that the United States is working with the Kurds to divide Turkey, in order to subdue a strong Turkey, which Washington views as a threat to its hegemony in the Middle East. This conspiracy fits nicely within the AKP’s overarching political narrative about recent events in the Middle East, with Syria being the most poignant example: The United States is attached to the failed status quo, while Turkey – and Erdogan in particular – is a positive agent for change, and a “voice for the oppressed.”
This narrative is now a central theme of the AKP’s overt campaign to garner public support for its top political priority, the changing of Turkey’s current constitution. The United States has become a tool for domestic Turkish politics. In the past, the United States and the European Union have refrained from seriously criticizing Erdogan, largely over concerns that any public condemnation of illiberal Turkish actions would backfire, in that the AKP would use it to their political advantage with their anti-Western base, and thereby strengthen support for the illiberal actions.
This logic is also driving recent Turkish rhetoric about the European Union, most poignantly through the AKP’s decision to entertain a debate about the reinstitution of the death penalty. The death penalty is an important issue for the far right nationalists, and therefore the AKP is making a tactical decision to engage with the voter base it needs to ensure support for the new constitution. However, such a decision would then prompt the European Union to end the accession process, deepening Turkey’s divide with the West, but also ending accession talks on terms that would be beneficial politically for the AKP. The AKP could correctly claim that it was the European Union that ended the talks and then pivot to an attack on various countries for having a lax approach to the PKK. This narrative reinforces the AKP’s current anti-Western strategy and absolves the AKP of responsibility for its actions (at least with its electoral base), albeit at the expense of Turkey’s global standing and economic cooperation with its most important trading partner.
The United States has a very limited set of policy tools to address these issues, outside of a change in public rhetoric from senior American officials. The United States has traditionally demurred from seriously criticizing Turkish domestic affairs. This policy response stems, in large part, from concerns about alliance management, and the idea that any more strident remarks would fall outside the bounds of how allies should speak to each other. This approach had its merits before the failed coup-attempt, but now that the AKP now relies heavily on anti-Americanism to bolster its domestic popularity, U.S. policy should be updated.
At the same time, the United States should also consider aligning its Syria and Turkey policies. The Syrian civil conflict has, for quite some time, spilled over the border into Turkey. Turkish and Kurdish decisions to break a promising cease-fire, combined with the American decision to support the YPG, are all interlinked – and, therefore, one cannot continue to try and assuage Turkish concerns with high-level visits to discuss tactics for planned offensives in Syria.
Absent broader, PKK-Turkish government reconciliation, Washington cannot achieve any semblance of political stability in Syria, both between Turks and Kurds, and between Arabs backed by Turkey and the PYD. Thus, for the longer-term strategic benefit of the United States, Washington now has an incentive to directly address the current fighting inside Turkey and publicly call on both the PKK and the Turkish government to return to peace talks and offer to mediate between the two parties. Such an announcement would prompt considerable backlash in Ankara, perhaps contributing to the downward spiral of the relationship. However, it would leverage the only tool the United States now has: The power to write newspaper headlines and shape talk show debates with rhetoric from senior officials, simply by speaking on the record to the press.
This policy will, without question, prompt a very, very negative Turkish reaction and would break with tradition. However, given the current climate in Turkey, a change in policy is required to advance American interests and to address the continued use of anti-Americanism/Westernism as a populist tool. Absent a change, the U.S. will have trouble realizing its goals in Syria, while the U.S.-Turkish relationship is further undermined by conspiracy theorizing.
Aaron Stein is a Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.