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How the U.S. Can Compromise With Turkey on Syria

Washington should build on past three-way Turkey-U.S.-SDF arrangements to put a real offer on the table.

By , chair of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center. He served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Turkey, and Albania; special envoy to Syria; and deputy national security advisor.
A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces and a U.S. soldier stand beside each other looking out over a field with smoke in the distance.
A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces and a U.S. soldier stand beside each other looking out over a field with smoke in the distance.
A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces and a U.S. soldier attend a joint military exercise with forces of the U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve coalition against the Islamic State in the countryside of the town of al-Malikiya (Derik in Kurdish) in Syria’s northeastern al-Hasakah province on Sept. 7. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

The latest crisis in the Turkey-U.S. relationship—Turkish threats to launch ground operations into Syria against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) Syrian Kurdish offshoot, the People’s Defense Units (YPG)—has again raised tensions in a bilateral relationship that is as critical as it is tumultuous. Although no final decision has yet been taken by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it is certainly likely he will launch some form of ground operation, which, depending on where and how, will more or less tank bilateral relations.

The latest crisis in the Turkey-U.S. relationship—Turkish threats to launch ground operations into Syria against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) Syrian Kurdish offshoot, the People’s Defense Units (YPG)—has again raised tensions in a bilateral relationship that is as critical as it is tumultuous. Although no final decision has yet been taken by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it is certainly likely he will launch some form of ground operation, which, depending on where and how, will more or less tank bilateral relations.

The United States has conflicting interests with Turkey. On dozens of issues, from Ukraine to NATO nuclear policy to Iran, both countries’ interests align. Washington, despite many tribulations, is Ankara’s most vital ally, and Turkey, given its economic and military weight and strategic geography, is a key U.S. partner in Eurasia.

Yet differences over Washington’s support for the YPG in the common effort against the Islamic State have roiled relations repeatedly since 2016. (The YPG was renamed in 2015 as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, by the U.S. military in a superficial effort to downplay the group’s PKK links given the latter being on U.S. terrorist lists. The author will henceforth use SDF, but it also means YPG and “Syrian PKK branch.”) This produced two decisions—both fortunately reversed—by former U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw U.S. forces supporting the SDF from Syria, as well as three Turkish ground incursions into Syria between 2016 and 2019.

Overall Turkish-U.S. goals concerning Syria are similar, and the two countries often coordinate, including on endorsing a political solution to the conflict under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, supporting the almost 4 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey, and opposing further advances by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against the Turkish-supported enclave of Idlib, Syria. Washington and Ankara even cooperated when the United States decided to support the SDF in Kobani, a Kurdish-majority city on the Turkish border in northern Syria, against an Islamic State onslaught in September 2014.

Eventually that cooperation cooled. An Ankara-PKK cease-fire that had been in place for two and a half years broke down in 2015, while the United States, building on the SDF’s success against the Islamic State, expanded its support to the SDF as the primary ground force to assault the Islamic State’s remaining territory in Syria along the Euphrates River. That successful campaign expanded the territory under SDF control deep into ethnic Arab areas, eventually comprising around 25 percent of Syria, several million inhabitants, most of Syria’s oil, and much of its arable land.

Turkey, now back in battle against the PKK, understandably saw this as a potential threat and remonstrated ever more against U.S. policy, which unconvincingly defined U.S. support to the SDF as “temporary, tactical and transactional.” And Washington could not articulate an endgame for the mini-state it had helped create—because it arguably did not have one.

This all came to a head with the third Turkish military incursion, this time into northeast Syria close to where U.S. forces were operating, in October 2019, following the breakdown of a U.S.-Turkey agreement to restrict the SDF presence. The Trump administration reacted furiously, imposing far-reaching sanctions on top Turkish officials and dispatching Vice President Mike Pence to negotiate a cease-fire with Erdogan, which he did successfully. Under it, Turkey and its Syrian opposition forces allies occupied a 130-kilometer stretch of the northeastern border some 30 kilometers into Syria, and the SDF withdrew its forces from that block.

That agreement has held—apart from minor, usually artillery and air, action—for over three years. But Erdogan is still concerned with the SDF being so close to Turkey on either side of that block in the northeast as well as in two enclaves in the northwest, Tal Rifaat near Aleppo and Manbij just west of the Euphrates River. He negotiated an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin later in October 2019 for Russian forces, who had moved into Manbij and northeastern areas when U.S. troops pulled back, to force the SDF back 30 kilometers from the Turkish border in those northeast areas not covered by the Pence-Erdogan agreement. But unlike the agreement Pence made with Erdogan, the SDF was never consulted, and it has not pulled back.

The proximate cause of the current crisis was two November attacks against Turkish civilian targets in Istanbul and Gaziantep province that together killed nine people, which Ankara attributes to the PKK operating out of Syria. (The PKK has denied involvement.) And though Erdogan has previously threatened to launch ground operations against the SDF only to be dissuaded by Washington and Moscow, this time he appears more serious. Some observers attribute this to Turkey’s upcoming national elections in mid-2023, where polling shows Erdogan’s party well short of a majority, and allege he is seeking to boost support by taking a “wag the dog” action against PKK elements.

Perhaps, but Erdogan might instead be seeking to intimidate the PKK from launching attacks right before the elections, whose “Benghazi” effect could torpedo Erdogan’s candidacy. Turkey-U.S. coordination on Syria is also not as high-level as in the past and given Washington’s emphasis on pivoting away from the Middle East, Turks want to know what will happen to the PKK statelet on their border.

Washington fears that a new Turkish incursion into Syria—especially one in the northeast, near where U.S. forces and the SDF are operating against the Islamic State—could undercut the fight against that terrorist group and, in particular, the critical role the SDF plays in guarding thousands of Islamic State prisoners and family members and thus is urging Turkey in ever stronger terms not to launch an operation. The Turks do not appear to be heeding Washington’s call, in part because they heard the same tune before their 2018 incursion against the SDF in Afrin, Syria, and didn’t suffer any long-term consequences for ignoring it that time.

More generally, Ankara appears frustrated that, after eight years, it still does not know Washington’s long-term intentions in the northeast (in part because Washington, beyond supporting U.N. Resolution 2254, has not announced any comprehensive strategy).

Russia—whose forces are operating in two of the areas the Turks are eyeing (Kobani and Manbij) and which supposedly was to effect the SDF’s withdrawal in 2019—has been negotiating anew on withdrawal with SDF leader Ferhat Abdi Sahin (better known by his nom de guerre, Mazloum Abdi), without much success, while Abdi has appealed to the United States, including in the pages of the Washington Post, to stop a Turkish incursion.

It certainly is in Washington’s interest to do so. Although the Russians claim to be trying to deter the Turks by persuading the SDF to pull back, knowing their ally Assad does not want Turkey to seize even more Syrian territory, Moscow has conflicting interests. A total breakdown in U.S.-Turkish relations stemming from an incursion, and possibly even a U.S. troop withdrawal from a chaotic northeast Syria (U.S. State Department people have already been pulled out), would be in Russia’s interest given the crucial role Turkey plays in containing Moscow not just in Syria but also in Libya, the Caucasus, and, most importantly, Ukraine, where Turkey has provided key weapons systems to Kyiv, used the 1936 Montreux Convention to block Russian naval reinforcements into the Black Sea, and stopped Russian military flights between Russia and Syria over Turkey. There is thus some suspicion that Moscow might green-light an incursion into Kobani, which would most directly affect U.S. ties with both Turkey and the Kurds.

But Washington’s protestations alone will not compel Ankara to stand down. Rather, U.S. officials could build on past three-way Turkey-U.S.-SDF arrangements to put a real offer on the table.

Turkey’s immediate demands are for SDF forces to pull away from Turkish territory and from Syrian areas that Turkey controls. It also wants commitments against PKK attacks out of Syria against Turkish territory. There are precedents for this. In 2016, the United States—including then-Vice President Joe Biden himself—committed to Turkey to ensure an SDF withdrawal across the Euphrates River after the group had seized Manbij; then, after the Obama administration failed to follow through, the Trump administration negotiated a new SDF withdrawal from Manbij in 2018, only partially successful due to SDF intransigence and internal U.S. sparring. In 2019, Ankara, Washington, and the SDF formally agreed to a withdrawal of SDF forces in the northeast to between four and 14 kilometers from the Turkish border, with joint U.S.-Turkish military patrols to verify. (That agreement was de facto obviated by the October 2019 Turkish incursion and the Pence-Erdogan agreement.) Moreover, Washington obtained repeated commitments from the SDF not to attack Turkey from northeast Syria. (The recent attacks in Turkey have been traced to the SDF in northwest, not northeast, Syria.)

Given the importance for both the United States and the SDF of forestalling a destabilizing Turkish incursion, Washington should revitalize these commitments in some form. The SDF could withdraw from Manbij and Kobani, as it had previously agreed to do in various forms, and extend its pledge not to attack Turkey from northeast Syria to not attacking from anywhere in Syria, in return for a Turkish promise not to move against Manbij or the northeast. Turkey could still attack Tal Rifaat, but the PKK elements there have had nothing to do with the United States, and thus an attack there would be far less destabilizing for the U.S.-Turkey relationship than elsewhere.

Similar initiatives with Turkey on these issues have had mixed results, to be sure, but the stakes are high enough to justify talking to both the Turks and the SDF at a very senior level. But even if Washington succeeds in postponing a Turkish attack, it owes Ankara—and its own citizens, whose soldiers are often under fire in Syria—an answer to the question “How does this all end?” for Syria as a whole.

James Jeffrey is chair of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center. He served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Turkey, and Albania; special envoy to Syria; and deputy national security advisor.

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