Washington’s Tightrope Act in Syria

President Barack Obama's administration is trying to stay on the good side of both Turkey and Syria's Kurds, even as its two partners are increasingly at each others' throats.


The operation that Turkey launched Wednesday in Syria, in which Ankara dispatched tanks and special forces to support a rebel offensive on the Islamic State-held town of Jarablus, marks a major departure from recent Turkish policy.

Turkey has long been uneasy, and engaged in a great deal of saber-rattling, about the growing alliance between the United States and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its YPG armed forces. Turkish officials, from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan down, have emphasized that the PYD is as much an enemy as the Islamic State and ought to be eradicated. It must have come as a surprise, therefore, when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that the Turkish operation against Jarablus had been planned all along with the United States — the same United States that Turkish leaders have been accusing of playing a role in the failed July 15 coup and supporting PYD ambitions in northern Syria. In this assault, however, U.S. warplanes provided air cover for the advancing Turkish forces and their rebel allies in Syria.

Ankara has not only committed ground forces to controlling Syrian territory, but also risks further aggravating the domestic tensions with its Kurdish minority. In view of the government’s persistent anti-Syrian Kurdish rhetoric, Turkey’s Kurds will perceive this operation to be directed at the PYD, to which they are very emotionally attached.

The operation coincides with Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Ankara to stop the dramatic deterioration in Turkish-American relations following last month’s failed coup, which Turkey blames on the Pennsylvania-based, self-exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. Turkish officials have demanded Gulen’s extradition and seemingly do not comprehend the American need to go through a legal process. Meanwhile, accusations in the Turkish press of U.S. complicity in the coup attempt, fomented by the government, have severely damaged the bilateral relationship.

In view of Turkey’s deep suspicions of U.S. motives in Syria and Erdogan’s government, how does one explain the seemingly contradictory developments of this past week? The strategic importance of Jarablus provides part of the answer: The town sits on the Syrian side of the Turkish border and has been a key crossover point for Islamic State fighters, recruits, and supplies. The Turkish city of Gaziantep, recently the victim of an Islamic State suicide bomber who killed at least 54 people, is just to the north and has been a critical Islamic State operational node supporting the organization’s operations not just in Syria but in Turkey as well.

For Turkey, however, Jarablus’s real importance lies in the fact that by controlling it, Ankara can prevent Syrian Kurds from acquiring a continuous zone in northern Syria they can call their own. Today, the PYD controls an area stretching from the Iraqi border to just to the east of Jarablus, and another canton in northwest Syria. By occupying Jarablus, the Turks will thwart what they perceive to be the PYD’s ambition to declare autonomy within Syria, not unlike what the Iraqi Kurds have achieved.

Erdogan has always viewed the Syrian Kurdish gains as a strategic threat to Turkey. This is because the PYD is a creation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish insurgent group that has fought a decades-long war against the Turkish state. When Erdogan tried to block U.S. action to defend the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani in October 2014, Turkish Kurds rose up and as many as 50 people perished in the ensuing riots.

The links between Turkish and Syrian Kurds are very deep. In conversations I had in March and June with Turkish Kurds — encompassing political leaders, NGO communities, and ordinary citizens — they uniformly agreed that the issue to which they attached the most importance was Rojava, the Kurdish name for Syria’s Kurdish regions. These conversations took place at the height of fighting between Turkish security forces and the PKK, with devastating consequences for the Kurdish civilians. Turkey’s Kurds have rebelled numerous times and feel they have never won anything; in Syria, by contrast, the PYD has proven to be a capable force on the battlefield and even won U.S. plaudits.

In fact, the reason the peace negotiations between the Turkish government and the PKK broke down was because of Erdogan’s insistence that the PKK put an end to the PYD’s growth in Syria. The PKK refused. Erdogan believed — rightly so, in many ways — that the Syrian Kurds’ success in Rojava would much improve the Turkish Kurds’ bargaining position at the negotiating table.

Washington faces the difficult task of containing this simmering rivalry. On the surface, the U.S. endorsement of the operation is designed to show support for Turkey — but at the same time it is a way to keep an eye on Turkish behavior. Washington does not want the Turkish forces or their allies to clash with the PYD, which has proven to be the only effective force capable of defeating the Islamic State on the ground. The Iraqi army, Syrian forces, and even the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga have proven to be ineffective when faced with dedicated Islamic State fighting units. Most recently, the PYD — with support from U.S. airstrikes and special forces — captured the strategic town of Manbij from the Islamic State.

The Manbij battle turned out to be much bloodier than the PYD anticipated, and it suffered significant casualties. The United States, therefore, has a moral obligation to and a continuing need for the PYD — even if it agrees with Turkey that PYD forces should remain east of the Euphrates and not create a contiguous territory under its control. The capture of Manbij was necessary, but it is not the final goal. The Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa is next, and there too the PYD militias are expected to play an important role.

Understandably, the PYD and Kurds in Syria and Turkey are likely to be very suspicious of this new operation. Kurds throughout the region harbor misgivings about Washington’s intentions, because of the perceived U.S. record of abandoning them for better relations with the existing states. Now, again, the PYD will worry that their ally will abandon them: In his remarks in Turkey, Biden seemed to categorically shut the door on a contiguous Kurdish region within Syria.

For the PYD, the aim of its alliance with the United States is not to capture Manbij or Raqqa, two Arab towns that would be difficult to hold even if they wanted to. Rather, it hopes to win American support for post-civil war negotiations on the future of Syria. Kurds have always been relegated to the lowest rungs of Syrian society: They have been denied elementary rights and have had their citizenship revoked on a whim. They now hope that the patronage of the only global superpower can change that — and U.S. officials will have to work hard to convince them that this aspect of their alliance still holds.

On the ground, Washington has been careful to carve out understandings with Turkey on the PYD’s actions, and prevailed on the Turks to accept the PYD leadership’s role in liberating Manbij. If the PYD is to retreat back east of the Euphrates, as agreed with Washington, a weak Arab force has to replace it in that town. Only when the United States trains the new force will the PYD be able to retreat.

In the meantime, Washington has to carefully play this balancing act. It is allowing the Turks to make moves that satisfy their own needs while making sure the situation does not escalate into a confrontation with the PYD move. If it works, kudos to the Obama administration.

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Twitter: @hbarkey

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