Tensions Spike as Turkey Threatens Syria Offensive

U.S. defense secretary says a Turkish incursion would be “unacceptable.”

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters participate in a training maneuver using an armored vehicle provided by the Turkish army, near the town of Tal Hajar in Aleppo province, on Jan. 16.
Turkish-backed Syrian fighters participate in a training maneuver using an armored vehicle provided by the Turkish army, near the town of Tal Hajar in Aleppo province, on Jan. 16. BAKR ALKASEM/AFP/Getty Images

Tensions between Washington and Ankara spiked on Monday as Turkey began amassing large numbers of troops and military equipment on the border with northeast Syria in preparation for an attack against the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds who helped defeat the Islamic State.  

While he did not explicitly threaten a military response, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper strongly implied that the United States would take action if Turkey attacks the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mostly Kurdish group that Turkey argues has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party militant group, known as the PKK, which both the United States and Turkey have designated a terrorist group. Such an incursion would be a significant escalation of ongoing friction between the two NATO allies and would threaten not just the Kurds, but also U.S. troops in the region. 

“Clearly we believe any unilateral action by them would be unacceptable,” Esper told traveling press en route to Tokyo, noting that he had spoken with his Turkish counterpart several times about Ankara’s “legitimate” security concerns regarding the SDF. However, he added that he is “confident we will work something out in due course.”

A U.S. military delegation is currently in Turkey to meet with Turkish officials, Esper said. The delegation is reportedly part of a last-ditch attempt to head off the offensive.

As NATO’s southern flank and home to a key launching pad for U.S. operations in the Middle East, Incirlik Air Base in Turkey is a crucial U.S. partner in European security and the fight against extremism. But the alliance has frayed in recent years, especially after Turkey’s failed 2016 military coup, U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds, and Turkey’s increasingly cozy relationship with Russia.

Most recently, the United States condemned Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile system that U.S. officials say threatens the F-35 fighter jet and NATO air defenses. The Pentagon went so far as to kick Ankara out of the F-35 program and cancel all planned Turkish orders of the jet. But so far the administration has declined to impose harsh sanctions on the struggling Turkish economy in response to the deal. 

Diplomatic relations between Washington and Ankara often seem to hinge on U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal relationship with his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In January, Trump announced via Twitter that the two had agreed to a 20-mile buffer zone in northeast Syria, a move that would leave the SDF vulnerable to cross-border attacks. But so far no buffer zone has materialized, angering the Turks.

Turkey’s recent buildup of troops at the Syrian border is the latest sign of the intensifying spat between the two NATO allies. An outright attack into northeast Syria could strain the fragile relationship to its breaking point.  

Still, Esper tried to downplay the tensions, stressing the United States’ and Turkey’s “mutual interest” in northern Syria. Esper drew a distinction between Turkey’s “long-standing” security concerns regarding the Kurds and the decision to procure the Russian missile system. He added that the two nations have “made progress on some of the key issues” surrounding the security zone, though he did not elaborate. 

Esper pointed to the shared goal of ensuring that Islamic State militants do not regain a foothold in the war-torn country. The SDF is currently holding thousands of Islamic State fighters in camps across northeast Syria—the security of those prisons and prisoners would be at risk if Turkey launches an attack, he said.

“We want to sustain the continued defeat at least of the physical caliphate of ISIS,” Esper said. “That becomes a question if [Turkey] moves in.”

In a July interview, Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander in the fight against the Islamic State, warned that, faced with a Turkish incursion into Syria, the SDF would likely turn its attention away from the fight against Islamic State remnants.

“The key is to find a way to address those Turkish security concerns without creating a situation where the security situation across the rest of northeast Syria becomes unstable and allows ISIS to operate again,” Grynkewich said. “What we worry about is the ability to defeat Daesh [ISIS] there, if the SDF were to turn its attention away.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman