Shadow Government

America and Turkey Need to Step Back From the Brink

Washington and Ankara are playing a dangerous game of chicken in Syria.

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House on May 16, 2017. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House on May 16, 2017. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Syria is today one of the world’s most dangerous places. The United States, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Israel, the Syrian regime, the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Democratic Forces, Hezbollah, extremist groups of various stripes — these are among the players whose military forces are competing on the battlefield.

As the slaughter of civilians continues, one particular danger looms especially large: The United States and Turkey are on a collision course in northern Syria. American forces are allied with a faction of Syria’s Kurds, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), against which Turkey has recently launched a military offensive. American and Turkish forces could come to blows on Syria’s battlefield, pitting two NATO members against each other and pushing the U.S.-Turkey relationship to the breaking point.

Washington and Ankara need to step back from the brink before it is too late. The United States and Turkey still need each other to help stabilize a Middle East that is in turmoil. And with Turkish democracy already imperiled by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s autocratic turn, a breakup with the United States would likely prompt him to further tighten his grip and potentially end Turkey’s geopolitical alignment with the West — dealing both Turkey and the Atlantic community a decisive blow.

The United States and Turkey admittedly face an inescapable clash of interests in Syria. Washington is right to stand by its military partnership with the YPG, the Kurdish militia it relied upon to lead the attack on the Islamic State and drive it from Raqqa. Alternative militias simply did not have the military wherewithal to do the job. At the same time, Ankara is fully justified in being deeply unsettled by U.S. support for the YPG due to its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish group that has longed waged a separatist terrorist campaign against Turkey.

Now that the Islamic State is on the run, the United States and Turkey should be working hard to mend fences. But they are only making matters worse. The United States is doubling down on its relationship with the YPG, viewing the partnership as a vehicle for preserving U.S. influence in postwar Syria. Feeling betrayed by Washington, Ankara is pressing ahead with its military campaign against the YPG in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin and is threatening to head next to Manbij, a town to Afrin’s east with a sizable presence of both YPG and U.S. troops. The Turkish offensive has already distracted the YPG from the final stages of the fight against the Islamic State.

The United States and Turkey urgently need to reverse course. With the defeat of the Islamic State in sight, Washington can afford to start scaling back its support to the YPG and instead put Turkish priorities front and center. The United States is reluctant to step back from the Kurds, concerned that doing so will undercut its ability to rely on them to counter Iranian and Russian influence in Syria. But Washington is overestimating its ability to look to the Kurds to check the regional sway of Tehran and Moscow. The United States can best fulfill that task by investing in its relationship with Turkey and helping Ankara expand its influence in Syria.

To be sure, the United States cannot now walk away from the Syrian Kurds; they have been loyal allies and endured heavy sacrifices in the fight against the Islamic State. But with the militant group on the run, Washington should be reclaiming the heavy weapons it transferred to the YPG to take Raqqa and pressing the group to withdraw its fighters and return political power to local communities in the non-Kurdish areas it has wrested from Islamic State control. For starters, Washington needs to deliver on its repeated pledge — reiterated just last week — to secure the withdrawal of YPG fighters in Manbij to the eastern side of the Euphrates. The United States should also make clear to Syria’s Kurds that it will help them attain the regional autonomy they seek only if they renounce the PKK and its terrorist campaign against Turkey.

In return, Ankara needs to back away from its military offensive against the YPG — which has already bogged down — and start investing in a pragmatic relationship with Syria’s Kurds that distances them from the PKK and aims to make them responsible stakeholders in postwar Syria. Ideally, Erdogan should leverage his nationalist credentials to pursue rapprochement with the broader Kurdish community, including the PKK. With close to 15 million Kurds inside Turkey and millions more in the north of Iraq and Syria, a strategy of military confrontation is a dead end. But with Erdogan embracing militarized nationalism as he looks to elections scheduled for next year, he lacks the foresight to countenance negotiation with the PKK any time soon.

Opening a dialogue with Syria’s Kurds, however, offers Erdogan both a political and a strategic win. He can demonstrate that he has diplomatic prowess to go along with his bluster and bravado. And he can back out of the strategic mess he has bought in Syria.

By attacking the YPG, Ankara is pushing the group into the arms of the PKK. In contrast, reaching out to Syria’s Kurds would wean them away from the PKK and take advantage of their keen interest in attracting international support and legitimacy as they seek to consolidate their standing in Syria’s postwar political landscape.

Erdogan also needs a stable buffer zone on the Syrian side of Turkey’s border, both to keep at bay the extremism and violence likely to afflict Syria for some time to come and to secure safe areas to which Turkey can return Syrian refugees. With Kurds in control of most of northern Syria, Ankara needs their goodwill, not their animosity.

Turkey needs to come in from the cold. Ankara is beyond isolated. It is estranged from Europe and the United States, and it is at odds with Russia, Iran, and most of its neighbors. At home, Turkish democracy, long a model for the Middle East, is going dark.

The West is losing Turkey. The first step toward averting that outcome is for Washington and Ankara to arrive at a way forward on Syria’s Kurds.

Versions of this article are also due to appear in La Stampa and Le Monde.

Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as special assistant to the president for national security affairs from 2014 to 2017.

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