Turkish Army soldiers walk by tanks set to join a contingent for Turkey's operation Euphrates Shield on August 25, 2016.
Photo credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration had promised that all YPG forces would move back east across the Euphrates following the liberation and stabilization of Manbij City. The failure of a small cadre of YPG to do so, as well as Ankara’s perception that the Arab-majority Manbij Military Council governing the city served as YPG proxies, heightened Turkish fears that Syrian Kurds might soon take over the rest of the border. The establishment of defensive positions by the SDF north of Manbij City, in proximity to Jarabulus, magnified this perception.
Compounding matters, in the aftermath of the attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016 by supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric residing in Pennsylvania, relations between Ankara and Washington deteriorated further. A trip by Biden to Ankara in late August prevented the relationship from going completely off the rails, but serious tensions over the failure to extradite Gulen and continued U.S. support for the SDF persisted.
On August 24 (the same day as Biden’s visit), Turkish-backed opposition forces, supported by Turkish special operations troops and tanks, launched “Operation Euphrates Shield,” crossing into Jarabulus to push out the Islamic State and, most especially, contain the Kurds. As Turkish-backed forces moved south, quick intercession by the U.S. military and diplomats was required to narrowly avert a major clash with the SDF near Manbij City. Although Turkey had given the United States almost no warning of the operation, the Obama administration quickly offered U.S. special operations forces, ISR, and air support to Euphrates Shield, encouraging Turkish-backed militants to move west and southwest to clear Islamic State fighters from a string of additional border towns. After six months of fighting, Euphrates Shield culminated in the seizure of al-Bab, on the southern edge of the Manbij pocket, creating a 772-square mile buffer zone controlled by the Turks (see map).
Map: Areas of Influence, Early May 2017
(Source: Institute for the Study of War)
In many respects, Euphrates Shield represented the type of joint endeavor against the Islamic State first discussed in the fall of 2014. Yet it took nearly two years for Erdogan’s calculations regarding the Islamic State to shift sufficiently to justify direct Turkish intervention. More than anything else, however, Erdogan’s move was about the Kurds. In one of the many ironies of the Syrian war, it was Erdogan’s earlier reluctance to focus on the Islamic State that produced the very dynamic — close U.S.-YPG ties — that eventually forced Turkey’s hand.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and former Turkish president Abdullah Gul attend the funeral of a victim of the coup attempt in Istanbul on July 17, 2016.
Photo credit: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images
Where Do We Go From Here?
Regardless of where one places the blame for the current predicament, we are where we are. The key question is: What can the Trump administration do about it?
Given the vital national interest the United States has in defeating the Islamic State, it would be unwise to abandon the SDF at this point, despite the frictions with Turkey. And it is hard to see the Trump administration doing so. During an April 26 event in Washington, for example, retired Lt. Gen. Terry Wolff, the current U.S. deputy special envoy for defeating the Islamic State, noted that the SDF represent the “only viable effort to liberate Raqqa.” He then added: “How long can you allow [the Islamic State] and its external operations to wait? We have a sense of urgency here.”
Not surprisingly, Turkish officials disagree. Erdogan will likely ask Trump to pause U.S. plans and reverse the decision to arm the YPG, arguing that the administration should support an assault on Raqqa utilizing thousands of Turkish-backed forces instead, essentially redirecting the groups mobilized for Euphrates Shield. Yet there is no such alternative force. The Pentagon estimates that the SDF totals 50,000 fighters, including 27,000 YPG and 23,000 Arab forces. In contrast, Turkey only marshalled a few thousand fighters for Euphrates Shield. Although some analysts believe that force may have now grown to perhaps 10,000-strong, they are needed to hold the buffer zone Turkey has created. And even if they could be freed up to assault Raqqa, their numbers remain too small — and the coherence and command-and-control of the motley assortment of groups too uncertain — to represent a credible alternative to the SDF for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, as a simple matter of geography, Turkish forces and the armed opposition groups operating in the Euphrates Shield buffer zone are boxed in, and it is unclear how they would even get to Raqqa. Moving south and east from the Euphrates Shield area in an attempt to hook up to Raqqa from the south would require them to fight through Russian and Assad regime forces. And if they opted to assault Raqqa from the north, it would require a permissive corridor through SDF lines, which is hard to imagine, or seizing the Tal Abyad crossing and then fighting through thousands of American-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters, which would be disastrous (see the map below.)
(Image credit: Institute for the Study of War)
Nor would it be a good idea to substitute American G.I.s for the SDF in an effort to appease Turkish concerns. Last month, reports surfaced that senior National Security Council staff floated the option of sending tens of thousands of U.S. troops to Syria to seize Raqqa. Such a move, which would essentially represent an invasion of Syria, would be a major departure from the “indirect approach” that relies on local partners to seize and hold terrain. Beyond the costs in American lives, it would leave the U.S. military owning a Syrian city with more than 200,000 inhabitants with no exit strategy. It should come as no surprise that the Pentagon is not a fan of this option, and Trump has recently reiterated his desire to avoid sending large numbers of U.S. ground forces into combat against the Islamic State, as well as his reluctance to sink further into a Syrian quagmire.
Given the paucity of good alternatives, the Trump administration should move ahead with the SDF option. But it should do so as part of a broader strategy aimed at mitigating Turkey’s concerns as much as possible. Such a plan should include at least five elements.
First, even as Trump impresses upon Erdogan the urgent need to liberate Raqqa with the forces at hand, the administration needs to make a stronger case — both in private and in public — for the potential advantages to Turkey of the U.S. partnership with the YPG. The Raqqa operation orients the SDF away from the Turkish border and away from further attempts to link Kurdish cantons. American backing also provides important influence over YPG cadre in north central and northeastern Syria, limiting the prospect that the YPG will pursue an alternative alignment with Russia and Iran, which could prove much more detrimental to Turkish interests.
The U.S. relationship with the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), also positions the United States to potentially play a quiet mediating role between Turkey and the PKK in the event the parties are willing to re-start peace talks. This is something that should be in Erdogan’s interest given the toll the PKK insurgency has taken on Turkish society, and the fact that there is no purely military solution to the conflict. Moreover, having consolidated executive power, Erdogan’s political need to whip up anti-Kurdish sentiment should theoretically be lessened. It is important to remember that, from 2012 to early 2015, Erdogan previously pursued a strategy that aimed to end the war with the PKK via a negotiated settlement. Simultaneously, the Turkish government engaged the PYD/YPG in the hopes of driving a wedge between them and the PKK. This strategy collapsed in 2015 as the cycle of PKK violence reignited and Erdogan’s own political interests in checking Kurdish political gains in Turkey led him to take a harder line. One key task for Trump, therefore, is to make the case to Erdogan that it is in Turkey’s interest to return to a version of this earlier approach — and that the U.S. dealmaker-in-chief is prepared to help.
Second, to address Ankara’s concerns that U.S. assistance to the YPG could produce a direct military threat to Turkey, Trump should commit to being fully transparent with Erdogan about the nature of the military support the United States is providing to the SDF. U.S. defense officials have said the assistance will include small arms, machine guns, ammunition, armored vehicles, and engineering equipment. The administration should follow through with a Pentagon proposal to meter the quality and quantity of the weapons and ammunition it provides to YPG forces such that it enables the Raqqa operation while posing as little danger to Turkey as possible. And the administration should present a credible mechanism to track weapons provided to the YPG so they do not end up across the border in the hands of the PKK. Any heavy weapons provided should also be returned to the United States following the Raqqa campaign.
Third, Trump should outline a broader modus vivendi between Ankara and the SDF that, while far from ideal from Erdogan’s perspective, would preserve core Turkish interests in containing Kurdish ambitions and sustaining the U.S.-Turkey alliance. The Trump administration must define and enforce clear and credible limiting conditions on the expansion of the Kurds’ territorial control and influence in Syria. In practice, that means the United States should be willing to deliver a total SDF withdrawal across the east bank of the Euphrates, leaving Manbij City to be administered by groups acceptable to Turkey. It also means providing additional U.S. assistance to Turkey’s efforts to consolidate its Euphrates Shield buffer zone — both as a hedge against the return of the Islamic State and to ensure that the Kurds do not link their cantons and control the entire Turkey-Syria border. The administration should restate U.S. opposition to an independent Kurdish state in northern Syria. And it should push for the inclusion of non-PYD and non-Kurdish political organizations Turkey can live with in SDF-administered areas east of the Euphrates, including in Raqqa once the city is liberated.
Furthermore, it is imperative that Trump does more to reassure Erdogan that the United States continues to regard the PKK as a terrorist organization, offering more intelligence and assistance to head off PKK attacks. To further address Turkish security concerns, the administration should make it crystal clear to the YPG that a continued operational relationship with the PKK — especially in the context of ongoing PKK attacks in Turkey — will make any long-term, post-Raqqa relationship with the United States unviable.
Even as it takes steps to address legitimate Turkish concerns, however, Trump must insist that Erdogan take reciprocal actions to address the concerns of Syrian Kurds. If the SDF fully withdraws east of the Euphrates, for example, Turkey should facilitate the creation of a secure transportation corridor across its buffer zone to allow the movement of Kurdish civilians between disconnected Kurdish cantons. In exchange for greater participation of openly pro-Turkish political organizations in SDF-controlled areas, Turkey should also agree to tolerate a future Syrian government that provides a degree of local autonomy to SDF-controlled areas in northern Syria. And, in return for the YPG distancing itself from the PKK, the Trump administration should offer the SDF continued U.S. assistance.
Finally, Trump should be prepared to present options to address Erdogan’s concerns regarding the PKK outside of Syria, especially in northern Iraq. Erdogan is very worried about the presence of the PKK in the Sinjar mountain region, one of the areas bombed on April 25, fearing that the PKK will work with Iran to establish a “land bridge” to ship weapons from Iran to Syria via Iraq. Here, the United States has unique influence with all the relevant parties, and Trump should offer to use that influence. As a recent International Crisis Group report usefully suggests, the administration could potentially leverage U.S. relationships with the YPG, Iraqi Kurdistan President Barzani, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to remove the PKK from Sinjar. Trump could also offer to intercede with Baghdad, warning Abadi that attempts by Iranian-backed Shiite militia to build a land bridge into Syria could prompt a military confrontation between Iraq and Turkey and complicate the long-term military partnership Abadi seeks with the United States after the fall of Mosul.
None of these actions represent a silver bullet. And none will be an easy sell for Erdogan. No amount of reassurance or compensation by the Trump administration will lead Turkey to accept the U.S. relationship with the YPG. But, taken together, the steps suggested here may be just enough to prevent the campaign against the Islamic State and the U.S.-Turkey alliance from sliding into the abyss — something that should be in the interest of both countries.
As with many of the global challenges Trump faces, the president is undoubtedly discovering that events in northern Syria are complicated. Indeed, there may be no more complicated piece of terrain on the planet. But with U.S. forces caught in the middle of escalating Turkey-Kurd tensions and Erdogan’s impending arrival to Washington, the president has no choice but to grapple with this complexity. Fast.
Top photo credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images