In June 2014, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama launched Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led multinational military campaign to defeat the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). By October of that year, the U.S. began cooperating with northern Syria’s dominant Kurdish force—the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—in the grander struggle against ISIS, specifically in the siege of Kobane.
In the following years, a pillar of both the Obama and Donald Trump administrations’ strategies for defeating ISIS was a strong America-YPG partnership. Based on the group’s proven capacity to deal severe blows to ISIS in battles, President Obama and his successor saw strong support for the YPG as key to avoiding the need for a large-scale deployment of U.S. forces to Syria. The U.S.-YPG relationship, however, quickly plagued Washington’s ties with its fellow NATO member Turkey, making America’s role in northern Syria a major source of friction in U.S.-Turkey relations.
From Ankara’s perspective, U.S. support for the YPG amounted to a NATO ally sponsoring a hostile terrorist group that threatened Turkey’s national security. Turks constantly argued that Washington was misguided to believe that fighting one terrorist group, ISIS, with another, YPG, would lead to peace or stability. A common argument still in Turkey is that it is ideologically contradictory for the U.S. to lend support to a Marxist guerilla force that is hostile toward a fellow NATO member. Moreover, officials in Ankara have seen Washington as hypocritical in invoking strong rhetoric about allies supporting Washington in the struggle in the “war on terror” while the U.S. supported the YPG given its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and the European Union.
Turkey Enters Syria
Since 2016, Turkey’s government has basically accepted that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is not on the verge of falling.
Since 2016, Turkey’s government has basically accepted that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is not on the verge of falling. Furthermore, Ankara’s overall Syria strategy has since prioritized countering the YPG and preventing the establishment of a Kurdish proto-state along the Syrian-Turkish border, not ousting Assad in Damascus which was a priority for Turkey earlier on in the Syrian crisis. On two occasions the Turkish military waged operations in northern Syria that targeted the YPG while the U.S. was actively working with that Kurdish force on the ground.
First, Operation Euphrates Shield, which Turkey launched in August 2016 and concluded in March 2017, involved Ankara deploying Turkish troops, tanks, and warplanes to strengthen the position of Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces, drive ISIS militants farther away from Turkey’s border with Syria, and halt the advance of YPG fighters. The campaign gave Turkey control of Jarablus, located on the Euphrates river, and Turkey made its way to Al Bab, previously an ISIS stronghold. A key objective that Turkey achieved in Operation Euphrates Shield was preventing the YPG from advancing west of the Euphrates River.
In January 2018, the Turks kicked off Operation Olive Branch, which was a cross-border intervention in the YPG-controlled Kurdish enclave of Afrin, situated in northwestern Syria. Operation Olive Branch’s goal was to oust the YPG from Afrin. Although securing a lasting peace in Afrin has been another task, the Turkish military campaign was successful in that it ejected the YPG from power in Afrin, putting the enclave in the hands of Turkish-backed Arab rebels that have fought both the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the YPG.
In both operations, the Turks and Americans managed to avoid a direct military clash. Yet the risk was on the minds of officials in both Ankara and Washington who worried about how such a set of difficult circumstances could severely exacerbate tension in U.S.-Turkey relations and weaken NATO as an alliance. The U.S. and Turkey struck a deal in June 2018 whereby Washington would ensure the exit of YPG forces from Manbij, paving the way for the American and Turkish militaries to jointly control the Syrian Arab town. But the Turks were dissatisfied that implementation of this agreement was moving too slowly, leading to warnings last month from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Ankara would wage yet another military campaign against the YPG in northern Syria. Again, observers of the Syrian crisis grew increasingly nervous about the potential for a U.S.-Turkey military clash.
Trump’s Major Announcement
But Trump gave Turkey what the leadership in Ankara had been, at least rhetorically, demanding for a long time. A senior Trump administration official told CNN that in a phone call between the American and Turkish presidents, Trump responded to Erdogan’s explanation of what Ankara saw as a host of problems stemming from America’s military presence in Syria. Trump said: “OK, it’s all yours. We are done.” The Turkish president assured his American counterpart that, with ISIS “defeated” in northern Syria, there was no need for a continued U.S. military presence and that Ankara could handling fighting off the remnants of ISIS.
Soon after Trump announced a major decision on Twitter: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” The following day, he tweeted: “Getting out of Syria was no surprise. I’ve been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer. Russia, Iran, Syria, and others are the local enemies of ISIS. We were doing there [sic] work. Time to come home & rebuild. #MAGA.” On December 23, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis signed the order to begin withdrawing approximately 2,200 U.S. troops in northern Syria.
Turkey’s Favorable Response
The American president’s decision to pull U.S. forces from Syria was extremely welcome news in Ankara, leading to Erdogan inviting Trump to Ankara at an unspecified time in 2019, which the American president accepted. Unquestionably, with Erdogan set to campaign for nationwide municipal elections this year, he will point to the U.S. exit as a major geopolitical gain. The Turkish media portrayed Trump’s announcement as a sign that Erdogan’s tough brinkmanship on northern Syria paid off and that by standing strong against the U.S., Turkey came out on top.
Below the surface, however, Turkey’s perspective on Trump’s decision is far more complicated. Despite what conventional wisdom may dictate, a complete exit of U.S. forces from northern Syria is not exactly what Turkey wanted over the past several years. Ankara’s military campaigns and threats against the YPG and strong rhetoric denouncing Washington for supporting the non-state actor were driven by Turkey’s interests in pushing the U.S. to abandon its partnership with the YPG. This is different from calling for an absolute end to the American military presence in northern Syria. In fact, officials in Ankara ultimately wanted to see the Turkey-backed proxy forces operating within the U.S.-led coalition in substitution of the YPG, especially with respect to the Arab areas under YPG control.
Ankara’s challenge at this juncture will be to successfully coordinate with Washington, which both capitals have begun doing following Trump’s bombshell Twitter announcement. U.S. military advisors visited Turkey to meet with their Turkish counterparts for discussions on northern Syria.
Ensuring that the U.S. military’s exit does not exacerbate the security dilemmas facing Turkey across the border in Syria will be key as not only local but international (Russia and France) players deal with unresolved questions concerning the remnants of ISIS, the 60,000 fighters in the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the role Shi’a fighters from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Pakistan, plus all the weaponry that Washington placed in the YPG’s hands. In terms of fighting ISIS militants who are currently in Syria, Trump tweeted how he and Erdogan discussed Ankara’s operations against the extremist force in a “long and productive” call, leading many to conclude that Trump decided to outsource the U.S. military’s fight against ISIS to the Turkish military.
Yet the timetable of Trump’s planned withdrawal of the 2,200 U.S. forces from northern Syria is unclear. Members of the administration have spoken about some forces remaining for a longer period of time and certain lawmakers have called on Trump to reverse his announced decision on Syria. Trump administration officials’ recent references to the Kurds of northern Syria have contributed to some tension between Ankara and Washington, especially with respect to references of Turkey waging a “slaughter” of the ethnic community. From Ankara’s standpoint, its interest is in countering a specific militia, not targeting an entire minority group, thus the U.S. rhetoric about Syria’s Kurds is misinformed.
Thwarting a Bloodbath Requires Turkish-Russian Coordination
By agreeing to delay any military operations against the YPG, albeit not indefinitely, Erdogan is permitting a diplomatic process to take shape in northern Syria that can ideally prevent a major escalation of violence between Turkey and the YPG, as well as a host of other state (Russia, Syria, Iran, and Iraq) and non-state actors (ISIS, Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, etc.) in a race to fill a vacuum. Doubtless, the parties overcoming the tension stemming from conflicting interests will prove extremely difficult.
The natural resource wealth of northern Syria is a factor that will inevitably complicate efforts on the part of all actors to find an agreement for a new security order in the part of Syria where approximately 2,200 U.S. forces have been present.
The natural resource wealth of northern Syria is a factor that will inevitably complicate efforts on the part of all actors to find an agreement for a new security order in the part of Syria where approximately 2,200 U.S. forces have been present. Without any doubt, Turkey will need to closely coordinate with Russia in order to prevent a bloodbath from ensuing in northern Syria.
Having vested heavily in a closer relationship with Russia, especially in the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup, Ankara must keep Moscow’s vital interests in mind regarding Syria, as well as Ukraine and other issues. The odds are good that the YPG will continue turning to both Damascus and Moscow due to the U.S. military’s exit, which will likely leave Russia owing the Kurdish faction its commitment to vetoing any Turkish military incursion into northern Syria to fight the YPG. Since 2017, the Kremlin has been attempting to integrate the YPG into the Syrian regime. Efforts are paying off on that front as the YPG has seen coordination with the regime as the group’s last hope for protection.
The transfer of power in Manbij was telling. Fearful of a Turkish military incursion into this Syrian Arab town that the YPG took from ISIS in 2016, the YPG General Commander officially stated on December 28: “We invite the Syrian government forces which are obliged to protect the same country, nation, and borders, to assert control over the areas our forces have withdrawn from, in particularly Manbij, and to protect these areas against a Turkish invasion.”
Yet for 2019, it’s not clear whether Russia’s complicated relationship with the YPG will serve to bring Moscow and Ankara closer or to reignite friction in Turkish-Russian relations. On December 29, Turkey’s foreign minister and other top officials from Ankara visited Russia’s chief diplomat in Moscow. At the meeting foreign ministers Mevlüt Cavusoglu and Sergey Lavrov agreed to enhance Turkish-Russian coordination regarding steps “on the ground” following the U.S. withdrawal, the return of Syrian refugees to their country, and the launch of a constitutional committee for Syria. Yet the YPG issue was not mentioned, nor was the latest development in Manbij.
At this point, Moscow’s next major goal is to promote a rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus. Furthermore, Ankara’s chief diplomat spoke in December at the Doha Forum of the possibility of Turkey’s government working with Assad’s regime. Some analysts interpreted the Sudanese President’s recent decision to become the first Arab head of state to visit Assad in Syria since 2011 as an outcome of Russian pressure on Khartoum given that Moscow is trying to help reintegrate Damascus into the mainstream diplomatic fold of the greater Arab/Islamic world. From Moscow’s perspective, that Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have shown their support for reaccepting the legitimacy of Syria’s regime is a positive development that Russia has spent years seeking to turn into reality.
While unclear when the U.S. troop withdrawal will occur, assuming such plans proceed, how would a healthier and improved U.S.-Turkey alliance fit into this complicated geopolitical puzzle in Syria and the wider region? Unquestionably, the recent warming of relations between Washington and Ankara unsettles the Russian leadership, which fears the ramifications of a rapprochement between these two allies. Three other files that will be indicators of how quickly the U.S. and Turkey can move forward with a rapprochement are the Patriot MIM-104E Guidance Enhanced and PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement missiles, the F-35 deal, and the possible freeing of Hakan Atilla, convicted by a U.S. Court in early 2018 for his role in enabling Tehran to circumvent sanctions.
Regardless of how much Ankara and Washington can move to improve bilateral relations, Turkey has made it clear that it will continue moving forward with the Astana format that is set to leave three non-Arab states—Turkey, Russia, and Iran—as the main shareholders in a post-conflict Syria.
Regardless of how much Ankara and Washington can move to improve bilateral relations, Turkey has made it clear that it will continue moving forward with the Astana format that is set to leave three non-Arab states—Turkey, Russia, and Iran—as the main shareholders in a post-conflict Syria. By deciding to pullout U.S. troops from northern Syria, Trump is positioning these three states to act more confidently in Syria, which has earned the American president no shortage of condemnation and harsh criticism from the DC establishment. Yet the extent to which Turkey, Russia, and Iran can overcome their own conflicting interests in 2019 remains to be seen.
In any event, Turkey is unquestionably pleased with the U.S. decision to end its service to the YPG in northern Syria as a deterrent against any Turkish or Syrian state-led military campaigns aimed at countering the Kurdish group. But whether the U.S. military’s exit from northern Syria ultimately proves beneficial to Turkey from the standpoint of national security interests is difficult to tell at this early stage.