Drawing Down from Incirlik: A Proposal to Improve America’s Strained Relations with Turkey
The U.S.-Turkish relationship is under severe strain, stemming from an intractable disagreement about Syria policy. To try and mend fences, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson flew to Ankara last week for talks with his counterpart, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Tillerson’s visit coincided with the latest source of tension: Turkey’s cross-border military operation in Afrin, dubbed Operation Olive Branch, in northeastern Syria, and repeated Turkish government threats to expand the operation to include the town of Manbij. The United States conducts regular deterrence patrols in Manbij, so Turkey’s threat to attack the city risked pitting two NATO allies against each other in direct military clashes.
The Turkish government’s anti-American rhetoric has subsided since Tillerson’s meetings, but the underlying issue dividing the two countries remains: Ankara is dissatisfied with U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish majority, the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG). The YPG form the backbone of the multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the United States works with to combat Islamic State (ISIL). However, the YPG is also linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group active in Turkey since the early 1980s. As the war in Syria has shifted from direct SDF-ISIL clashes for control over urban areas to “hold operations” in liberated territory, Ankara has increased pressure on Washington to signal that it will wind down support for the SDF.
Before Tillerson’s visit, the relationship had deteriorated to the point where Turks and non-Turks were arguing about whether Erdogan had threatened to “bury U.S. soldiers” or was referring to “burying patches [worn by U.S. soldiers]” in Manbij. Needless to say, the debate over such outrageous language underscores just how serious the tensions over Syria had become. The challenge for the United States, however, is managing the short-term needs of the ISIL war against the longer-term interest of maintaining close relations with a NATO ally — and crafting a strategy that balances these two competing interests.
The United States should think creatively about how best to send a signal to Turkey that it intends to draw down support to the SDF, without sacrificing SDF-led hold operations and decreasing pressure on ISIL. The current direction of the Syrian war provides an opportunity to do this. First, as a sign to Turkey that support for the SDF is decreasing, America should withdraw the combat aircraft deployed in Turkey, which support the SDF in the war against ISIL. In parallel, the United States should work with Turkey to establish a joint military presence near Manbij (without replacing the current governing structure in the city). The arrangement would require a local ceasefire mechanism to prevent clashes between Turkish and U.S.-backed forces. These local ceasefires, in turn, could be used to put pressure on the YPG’s parent organization, the PKK, to try and prevent a serious increase in fighting inside Turkey this spring.
A Chicken-and-Egg Problem for U.S.-Turkish Relations
The challenge for the United States is twofold: First, Turkish policymakers view the SDF as a serious security threat because of its links to the PKK insurgency. Ankara can’t settle the “Kurdish issue,” a Turkish euphemism for the PKK-led insurgency in the southeast, on favorable terms unless the PKK is severely weakened. However, the PKK can’t be severely weakened unless its Syrian affiliate, the YPG, is also undermined. And the United States is now protecting the YPG.
Second, and relatedly, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) have adopted an anti-PKK platform and leveraged broader dissatisfaction about terrorism to demonize the United States for its partnership with the SDF. The rhetoric is politically useful for the AKP and its leader, Erdogan, as he campaigns for a centralized executive presidency, the position he created for himself and won support for in an April 2017 referendum.
In the short term, the political climate in Turkey is not conducive to any concessions on the Kurdish issue. The AKP is working in close alliance with the MHP. Both parties’ bases are inwardly oriented and nationalist, although the AKP proved willing to entertain peace talks with the PKK between 2006 and 2009 and then again between 2012 and 2015. The peace process broke down in March 2015 and then collapsed completely five months later.
The Turkish elections are now scheduled for November 2019, although there are rumors that they could be moved up to July 2018. In either case, no serious drawdown of American support for the SDF is likely before the elections — and the Turkish government will not compromise before then. The Defense Department’s FY 2019 budget request, asks for $300 million in funds for the U.S.-military backed groups in Syria, the overwhelming majority of which fight with the SDF. The request also seeks another $250 million to patrol the SDF-held borders to prevent ISIL from returning to territory taken or returning to their countries of origin.
If this funding is approved, U.S. support for the SDF will continue well beyond the next election in Turkey. This suggests that the AKP/MHP alliance will eventually return to heated rhetoric and threats to rally political support and, importantly, to address Turkish security concerns. One target of this effort is certain to be America’s use of Incirlik Air Force base for strike missions in support of the SDF against the Islamic State. In fact, almost every Turkish political party, including the main-opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the MHP splinter, the IYI Party, has suggested that Ankara kick the U.S.-led coalition out of Incirlik.
Getting to Yes: A Modest Proposal
This situation provides the United States with an opportunity. The air war against ISIL has shifted. The United States currently has refueling aircraft and armed drones at Incirlik. The base was important for strike missions in Northern Aleppo, but is less vital for missions further south, near the Syrian-Iraqi border. American aircraft at a number of other bases in the region can fulfill the current requirements of the counter-ISIL missions without having to force Turkish policymakers to host assets that support a group Ankara hates. A drawdown at Incirlik could be presented to Ankara as a step towards winding support for the SDF. The United States would then revert to its pre-2015 posture of using the base as a transport hub for NATO operations in Afghanistan and for joint surveillance flights to monitor the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan. This would return the base to the status it had before the anti-ISIL war began – a logistics hub for U.S. and NATO operations in the region, without a permanent fighter wing.
The drawdown at Incirlik would not include a U.S. withdrawal from Manbij. The United States has an incentive to remain in the city and work with Turkey to prevent clashes between Turkish-supported groups and the U.S.-backed Manbij Military Council, a locally staffed, Arab-majority governing council linked to the SDF that has been placed in charge of the city. The council has tense relations with the Turkish-backed militias, a result of Turkey’s concerns about the PKK and its belief that the council is an Arab-majority cutout of the Kurdish group. Thus, any effort to reconcile and manage local challenges runs into the broader problem of the Kurdish issue.
The fundamental problem is obvious: Turkey and the YPG have irreconcilable goals in Syria, while the United States needs the YPG to help hold territory taken from Islamic State — the reason for intervention. To seriously address the root of the problem, the gap between the Turkish government and the Syrian Kurds needs to be closed, and the only way to do that is think about ways to resolve the PKK insurgency in Turkey. The United States has limited options in this regard, but could try to leverage its relations with the YPG to help address the PKK problem.
In return for support in Syria, the United States should consider pushing the PKK via the YPG’s leadership to accept a unilateral cease-fire, or at the very least, pledge not to renew operations once the snow melts in the mountain passes dividing Turkey and Iraq this spring. This approach would place some conditionality on the U.S.-YPG relationship and use the Manbij issue to try and force PKK-related concessions. To deepen trust, the United States could once again offer to broker talks between Turkey and the council, as it did in May 2016, before the SDF-led offensive for the city began, and then again during a Turkish visit to the city in December of that year. In addition, to assuage Turkish concerns about YPG elements in Manbij, the United States could offer to be more transparent with Turkey and to provide more information about council membership. Finally, the Americans could also agree to joint patrols with Turkey or jointly manned observation posts, perhaps using the December 2016 visit as a model for a narrow, locally driven agreement between the Turkish military and the Manbij Military Council. This local agreement could then be used to build trust and lessen tensions between Turkish-backed groups and Arab-majority militias affiliated with the SDF.
This proposal isn’t exactly new. The United States has previously sought to broker an understanding with the Manbij Military Council, but these efforts have never been paired with a signal that the U.S. intends to slow its direct military support for the SDF. Withdrawing U.S. military forces from Turkey could put pressure on the leadership in Ankara to compromise.
Tillerson’s visit to Ankara has helped to tamp down anti-American rhetoric. However, this lull won’t last. Erdogan is on the campaign trail and his alliance with the MHP has deepened. The U.S.-Turkish relationship remains fraught and the SDF issue will return absent creative thinking about U.S. options. Washington has good reason to draw down at Incirlik, return the base to its NATO-focused status, and work out a sequence to address the fundamental problem undermining the bilateral relationship: the PKK-led insurgency.
CORRECTION (March 2, 2018): Based on new information provided by U.S. Air Forces Central Command, this article has been updated to reflect that the United States no longer has A-10 aircraft at at Incirlik.
Aaron Stein is resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.