In Syria, Trump Faces a Tough Balancing Act Between Turks and Kurds
There are few good options left in Syria.
During his first trip to the Pentagon, President Donald Trump gave his generals a month to develop a new plan to defeat the Islamic State. One of the most pressing questions is when and how to take Raqqa, the de facto Islamic State capital in Syria. Left unresolved in the waning days of the Obama administration was the question of who should lead the assault: Syrian Kurds who’ve been working with U.S. special operators but require heavier weaponry (which would anger NATO ally Turkey) or a more diverse force of Syrian fighters (which would take time to assemble and thus delay the operation). Former Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken recently made a compelling case for pressing ahead with the Kurds. Yet the Trump administration would benefit from pausing to understand the Syrian landscape, both militarily and politically, as well as the second-order effects of various options.
What has made Syria so complex is the struggle on two fronts: the civil war between rebel forces and the Assad regime, as well as the battle against the Islamic State. Obama-era officials spent many hours in the situation room debating whether the latter could be resolved without addressing the former and assessing the cost of expediency in defeating the Islamic State for our relationships with regional partners and local populations. The proxy fight between neighboring countries jockeying for influence in Syria further complicated the landscape. Nowhere was the clash starker than between Turkey and the Kurds.
When the United States launched an air campaign against the Islamic State in summer 2014, it deployed special operators to assist local forces on the ground. They found the Syrian Kurds — the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — to be effective fighters and invested significant time and resources in developing their capabilities. Through the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the U.S. supported the YPG in partnership with a small number of Syrian Arab fighters to clear the Islamic State from considerable territory in northern Syria.
Turkey always objected to U.S. collaboration with the YPG, given its direct links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union, the PKK’s armed struggle against the Turkish state for Kurdish rights has resulted in over 40,000 deaths in recent decades. While the Obama administration maintained a distinction between the groups (as the YPG is not designated as a terrorist organization), the connections on the ground are hard to miss. For example, images of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned founder of the PKK and advocate for Kurdish autonomy, appear in YPG offices and pins worn by fighters. Turkey claims that fighters move freely between the groups and worries that supplies reaching the YPG may be passed to the PKK. Turkish fears of the PKK aren’t unfounded: In 2016 alone, the PKK conducted multiple mass-casualty attacks in Ankara and Istanbul that killed far more Turks than did Islamic State attacks. Devaluing these losses tears the fabric of an alliance that the United States will need more, rather than less, in coming years. Going forward, the U.S. should develop policies that address comprehensively the regional connectivity between Kurdish groups.
Kurdish issues have become more salient in Turkey’s domestic politics. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan initiated a peace process with the PKK that achieved some success, but the two-and-a-half year ceasefire broke down in July 2015 following an attack by an Islamic State suicide bomber on Kurdish activists in southern Turkey. The PKK blamed the Turkish government and assassinated several police officers. In response, the Turkish government launched a heavy-handed operation in Kurdish towns and the cycle of violence resumed. This coincided with electoral politics, as the pro-Kurdish political party — the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) — denied the ruling party a parliamentary majority for the first time in 13 years with an impressive showing in June 2015 elections. Dragging its feet on coalition formation, the government reran elections several months later. Amid the spike in violence, the HDP’s vote percentage declined. Last November, the government imprisoned several HDP parliamentarians on spurious charges of “terrorist propaganda,” who then missed votes on constitutional reforms that would strengthen the presidency. In advance of this April’s referendum on these constitutional changes, Erdogan will be particularly sensitive to any American actions (such as arming the YPG) that undermine his public support. The more useful American move would be finding ways to support the resumption of a peace process.
Turkish opposition to U.S. backing of the YPG is heightened by the Syrian Kurds’ ulterior political motive: connecting three cantons (Jazeera, Kobane, and Afrin) in northern Syria into a single autonomous region, similar to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. Ankara has reasonable fears that Kurds could stage attacks into Turkey from an established presence along the border. Furthermore, objections to this demographic realignment don’t come from Turkey alone. Many Syrian Arabs resent the YPG’s growing presence, accusing it of forced displacement (which Amnesty International called a war crime), failing to allow Arabs to return home after the Islamic State was cleared out, and engaging in practices less democratic than its rhetoric suggests. The legacy of U.S. support for the YPG may be de facto federalization of Syria, which will need to be addressed by Syrians in any political settlement.
While Erdogan tolerated SDF activities (generally only after a phone call from Obama), he established two red lines. First, he opposed any direct arming of the YPG. The U.S. military largely addressed this by providing mission-specific supplies to the YPG’s Syrian Arab partners in the SDF. And second, Erdogan said no YPG forces should move west of the Euphrates. When the United States supported the SDF crossing the river last August to clear Islamic State fighters from Manbij, the Turks acquiesced with the understanding the YPG would withdraw after the city was cleared and let the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army take over. When the YPG failed to leave and began to march west toward the Syrian town of al-Bab, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield. This mission had two purposes: supporting Sunni fighters in clearing the Islamic State from remaining territory along the Turkish border and blocking the YPG from creating a Kurdish region. (Given Russian control of the airspace in northwest Syria, this operation required Ankara’s reconciliation with Moscow following a chill in relations after Turkish forces downed a Russian fighter jet; the price seemed to be silence in the face of Russian and regime attacks on Aleppo.)
Trump has expressed a desire to reset relations with Turkey. This will not happen if the United States equips the YPG with rocket propelled grenades and machine guns for a Raqqa operation. (Press reports indicate the United States recently gave armored vehicles to the SDF. While the YPG is touting this as increased support under the Trump administration, the Pentagon said this transfer was planned before the election.) Various ways have been proposed to assuage Turkish concerns; however, past events suggest we have less sway over Kurdish actions than we may think (or we haven’t exerted the influence necessary thus far to change their behavior). While the Pentagon argues U.S. special forces would monitor weapons given to the YPG to prevent them from being transferred to the PKK, this seems challenging in the heat of battle. While the Pentagon promises to ensure YPG forces withdraw from Raqqa after the fight and be replaced by Arab forces, Turks saw a similar promise broken in Manbij with no consequences. While the Pentagon pledges to support Turkish military actions in Al Bab, there is a risk Turkey could attack YPG fighters there and draw Kurdish forces away from the Raqqa mission to defend their brethren. And while the Pentagon offers to help Turkey fight the PKK in Qandil (their base of operations in Iraqi Kurdistan), it can’t force the PKK leadership to engage in peace talks with the Turkish government.
The only thing that may help placate Erdogan would be the return of his avowed enemy, Fetullah Gulen — the Muslim cleric blamed for masterminding the July 2016 coup attempt and who is a legal permanent resident in the United States. Turks welcomed National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s Election Day statement that the United States “should not provide him safe haven.” Per extradition treaty terms, the Obama administration required (but hadn’t received) sufficiently compelling evidence to persuade a federal judge of probable cause. Unless the Turks can produce a smoking gun, deporting Gulen would likely require circumvention of U.S. law.
Any conversation with Turkey about Syria eventually touches on safe zones, which Erdogan has long advocated to keep the Islamic State off the border, block the YPG from connecting the Kurdish cantons, and stop refugees from entering. The Obama administration was reticent about creating a safe zone, citing humanitarian challenges, cost, and legal constraints. The prospect was further complicated when Russia began operations in northwestern Syria. Trump has called for a safe zone — as recently as last week during discussions of his executive order on immigration. While this could be a win for Erdogan, the Turkish government’s initial response was cautious, noting its recent military actions have created a de facto safe zone and wanting more details. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has also called for more clarity. Trump will need to address numerous issues. For example, who are the ground forces that will protect refugees from attacks by the Syrian regime and the Islamic State? Would the zones be created by Turkey, the U.N., or in cooperation with other governments (namely Syria and Russia)? And who pays for it? (Trump previously proposed Gulf funding and reportedly pitched the idea of zones in recent calls with leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.)
As a final point, the Trump administration should develop a theory of the case on Syria’s end state. While Syrian Kurds have produced politically expedient results against the Islamic State in the short term, they will not liberate all of Syria nor provide long-term stability. At some point, we need to determine who will clear and control the rest of the country (particularly the Sunni areas). This issue is particularly acute if Trump decides to cut through the Gordian knot by striking a deal with Russia to conduct a joint counterterrorism operation in Raqqa. The question is not simply who takes Raqqa, a Sunni city, but who controls it for the long term. Should the United States let the Kurds (even indirectly via local proxies) manage a major Arab city, knowing it will fuel extremist recruiting? Do we leave the city and region in the hands of the people who live there, the Sunni opposition, with some external protection? Or do we hand the keys to Assad’s forces, which would cause Sunnis in Syria and beyond to conclude we’ve done a deal with the devils of Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow to betray the Sunni world — thus handing a political victory to the extremists that could make up for their territorial defeat?
Relatedly, the United States must have a serious conversation with Syrian Kurds before launching a Raqqa operation. The administration should tell the YPG what Washington is prepared to support politically in a post-war Syria and how it views demands for Syrian Kurdish autonomy. (We shouldn’t, in any case, dangle the promise of political recognition in return for dictated military action.) The YPG has already expended considerable sweat and blood in furtherance of U.S. military aims and will be asked to sacrifice much more in this mission. It must understand what it will gain from attacking an Arab city outside its main area of interest and where it will stand afterwards. History is littered with examples of the Kurds being encouraged to rise up, only to be abandoned.
At this stage, there are few good options left in Syria. If the Trump administration waits to find an alternative force that is more inclusive of Sunnis and acceptable to Ankara, it may wait forever while the threat of external operations from Raqqa grows. On the other hand, going all in with the SDF could create a rupture with Turkey, a NATO ally that the United States will continue to need as a partner on a host of regional challenges. A new play with Russia would produce its own long-term complications with Sunni Arabs. Whatever the administration decides will require careful interagency coordination and deft diplomatic engagement. Actions have consequences. The administration should think them through.
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