De-Conflicting Turkish, Kurdish, and American Aims in Syria


Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has toned down its criticism of the United States after President Donald Trump took office in January. Before resigning from his position, Michael Flynn, the former national security advisor, directed the National Security Council to re-think the Obama plan for the forthcoming campaign to take Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. In parallel, Trump signed an executive order directing Secretary James Mattis to review the air and ground war against the Islamic State by February 28. For many in Turkey, these twin reviews, combined with the routine meetings with senior officials from the new administration, have prompted considerable speculation that the United States is prepared to drop its support for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in favor of a Turkish-backed force to take the city.

The Trump administration’s decision to rethink the approach to the war against the Islamic State is a normal and healthy aspect of the peaceful transfer of power. Mattis, according to multiple interviews I’ve conducted, is indeed challenging the commanders in charge of the campaign to justify the assumptions underpinning the current U.S. approach. The plan to take the city is straightforward. The politics are not. The SDF is a multi-ethnic force, but its main component, the Kurdish YPG, is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group that has fought the Turkish state for more than three decades. The United States, the European Union, and Turkey classify the PKK as a terrorist group.

For more than a year, the Obama administration debated the merits of embedding U.S. special operations forces with the YPG and, later, arming the group directly. The arguments in favor focused on hastening the war against Islamic State. Those who argued against this strategy said it would seriously undermine U.S.-Turkish relations. The military imperatives won out within the bureaucracy and U.S. special operators have deepened their footprint in eastern Syria. However, on the really tough question –  arming the YPG with heavy weapons to break Islamic State defenses surround Raqqa – the Obama White House deferred to the incoming Trump administration following countless inconclusive U.S.-Turkish meetings to come up with a different plan.  The Turkish press failed to recognize this nuance of the American bureaucracy, and instead treated the National Security Council and the Pentagon  as a monolithic bloc collectively moving toward a policy Ankara hated: support for the YPG and, later, the creation of the SDF to recruit more Arab forces under a Kurdish-dominated umbrella.

This characterization was false. The “pro-Turkey” and “lets do Syria with the SDF” sides of the debate constantly clashed behind closed doors, delaying a decision on Raqqa. Trump has inherited this dynamic and his National Security Council is now going through the same process.  In a new paper I wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations, I detail the Trump administration’s options for the forthcoming Raqqa campaign:

  1. Arm the Arab elements of the SDF, but withhold direct support for the YPG out of deference to Turkey. This is essentially the status quo.
  2. Deepen U.S. support for the SDF, including direct military support for the YPG, up to and including conventional U.S. forces, or Apache helicopter support for the attack on Raqqa.
  3. Disentangle the United States from the SDF in favor of Turkish regular and Special Forces, working with a slew of Arab and Turkmen rebel groups, all backed by U.S. special operations forces and airpower. This is Turkey’s preferred option.
  4. Explore options with Russia and the Assad regime, focusing the brunt of U.S. force in Iraq while the Assad regime and Russia move eastward in Syria to position themselves for an assault.

The Turkish government has sought to put pressure on the United States, passing a plan to take Raqqa without the SDF to various American interlocutors over the past two years – the latest circulating in recent weeks. The Turkish plan, according to Hurriyet, rests on the United States using its influence with the SDF to ensure a Turkish force would move unencumbered from Tel Abyad to Raqqa and without skirmishes between the hostile forces breaking out. In a scaled down version, Ankara could offer armor and artillery, again moving south. This plan is not feasible in the near term. Thus, to ameliorate Turkish concerns about the SDF, the United States would have to extend its timeline to take the city into 2018, giving the two countries time to train a new force and begin the process of moving them to the current front line the SDF now holds. This would delay the offensive, an outcome that CENTCOM has argued against.

The Trump administration, according to leaks and interviews I’ve conducted, is likely to pursue option two: arm the YPG directly (or indirectly, through the continued support of Arab forces operating alongside the YPG). To break ISIL defenses around the city, the United States military may also deploy Apache helicopters and, potentially, conventional U.S. ground forces operating more closely to the front lines and with lighter rules of engagement governing airstrikes. To salve Turkey’s concerns, Mattis hinted at more support for the Turkish cross-border incursion, (dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield).

This “win-for-win” approach is not new. It is a hold-over from the Obama administration, wherein the United States tried to have it both ways.  Washington sought to give tactical support to Turkey and its goals in Syria – many of which are shared by the United States. This included considerable air and ammunition support for Turkish backed rebels, who failed to make progress against the Islamic Sate for up to year before Ankara’s military intervention turned the tide.

This program of support was dubbed “train-and-equip.” It envisioned the Pentagon overseeing the creation of small, Arab-majority units to seal the Syrian-Turkish border between the town of Azaz and the Euphrates River. The program was scaled back after units returning to Syria clashed with Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, then known as Jabhat al Nusra, resulting in some fighters trading their weapons for protection. The small number of remaining train-and-equip forces continue to cooperate with the United States, but the program was was branded as a failure. The program led to the creation of two rebel units, now fighting with Turkish units near Al Bab, alongside a slew of other Turkish-backed groups. It was administered by “white” special operators and was intended to address a pressing military need: control of the Syrian-Turkish border. The idea was to use Arab forces so the United States could be seen as diversifying its ground partners. It also addressed a key Turkish demand: No YPG presence west of the Euphrates.  To support the defense of Marea, the United States allocated 50 percent of its strike and intelligence collection sorties from Incirlik, an equal amount to that of the SDF according to interviews I’ve conducted.

The “win-for-win” approach is, of course, problematic. It focuses on tactics rather than a broader strategy to address the root causes of the Turkish-Kurdish antagonism in Syria. If these tensions are left unaddressed, they risk upending military gains the U.S. military helped to facilitate. It could also contribute to the opening of yet another front in Syria’s multi-sided civil war. Turkish-backed forces in Syria share a long front line with the SDF. Clashes are frequent and could escalate at any time. A Turkish invasion of SDF-held territory would bog down a NATO army and leave current front lines with ISIL under-defended. It could also deepen ethnic cleavages in Syrian cities. ISIL could exploit these tensions and return to areas it was ousted from, all under the guise of protecting the Sunni population from Kurdish oppression.

To move beyond the tactics driven approach, the United States should consider adopting a bold approach, rooted in the realities of today’s Syria and premised on the assumption that the Trump administration will continue to support the SDF. The U.S. approach to Turkey should address the issue now driving tensions: the PKK insurgency and the obvious security threat the Syrian Kurds pose to Turkey. To do so, the U.S. government would encourage a resumption of the PKK-Turkish peace talks that collapsed in July 2015, appoint a special envoy to oversee the process, and make clear that Washington will mediate between the two sides. The special envoy, in turn, can also work with the Turkish military on strengthening counter-terrorism cooperation, while also helping to facilitate peace talks.

The president’s special envoy to the anti-ISIL campaign, U.S. regional diplomats, and military leaders could seek out ways to privately put pressure on the Syrian Kurds to declare a unilateral cease-fire with Turkish-backed forces currently fighting near Al Bab. This process should then be linked to a broader effort to secure a nation-wide ceasefire, which would have the indirect effect of freezing Turkish conflict with the SDF. This arrangement would allow for the United States to reassure the Syrian Kurds without Turkey having to declare a unilateral ceasefire with them. The PYD would, in turn, then be invited to peace talks, with the intent of marrying its own political objectives with those of the Syrian opposition. If the PYD violates the agreement, the United States should consider giving Turkey targeting assistance to hit PYD supply lines running between Iraq and Syria.

The United States, perhaps with some level of Russian support, could then make clear that it would be prepared to accept a decentralized future Syrian state, albeit one that remains territorially contiguous, united, and with a national parliament in Damascus. To further reassure Turkey, the United States, working with NATO allied countries already based at Incirlik, would set up a joint border monitoring mission to help prevent infiltration of weapons from Syria into Turkey. The real-time monitoring mission would take advantage of the infrastructure already in place in Turkey to jointly monitor the Syrian civil conflict and to monitor the PKK in northern Iraq. This mission could be repurposed to bolster Turkish security along the Syrian border, which would have the added benefit of providing a potential dispute resolution mechanism should a border clash happen.

These proposals are bold and will, without question, elicit a negative Turkish response. Ankara could argue that it is winning its war against the PKK and that it won’t stop until it removes the Syrian Kurdish threat from its border. Iran and the regime would also play spoiler. However, the aforementioned options are modeled on Turkey’s own approach to the PKK issue. Between 2012 and 2015, the broad brushstrokes of Turkey’s peace talks with the PKK revolved around the group disarming and withdrawing from Turkey in return for greater control given to local governmental institutions. The Turkish government also envisioned  Kurdish political support for a new Constitution. The proposal I laid out in my CFR paper adopted this as a model, with greater details on border enforcement and a specific U.S. role modeled loosely on the Good Friday accord, (the multi party and government arrangement that helped to end the Irish Republican Army led insurgency).

The Turkish government modeled its own Kurdish initiative on elements of Good Friday, so the plan shouldn’t come a surprise to Ankara. It was, at one point, their plan to address the so-called “Kurdish issue,” including broad discussions about local decision-making – discussions anathema to most Turkish politicians before the rise to power of the AKP. The United States need not reinvent the wheel. Ankara has created the pathway the resolve the PKK issue. The United States has an interest in seeing it through, both to solidify its gains in Syria and to contribute to primary goal of U.S. policy vis-à-vis Turkey: stability and cordial relations with a NATO ally.


Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East