Analysis - Political Transformations

The Critical Moment

Turkey’s Options towards America’s Support of Syria’s Kurds

Tuesday، May 30، 2017
The Critical Moment

American support for Kurds in Syria has become a serious problem that threatens American-Turkish relations, especially that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s meeting with American President Donald Trump at the White House on May 16, 2017 ended without meeting Erdogan’s demand that the US ends this military support. Ankara viewed this aid as a violation of the principles on which relations with the US have been established ever since Turkey joined NATO in 1952.

Turkish Demands

Before the Turkish president met with his American counterpart, Ankara had specified a set of demands, which it considered essential for the historical alliance between the two countries. The most important of which are:

1. Suspend American military support to the Kurdish People's Protection Units and the Syrian Democratic Forces as Turkey views the former as a terrorist organization. Turkey justifies assigning the Kurdish People’s Protection Units as a terrorist organization due to the fact that it’s the military wing of the Democratic Union Party considers itself the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has been already blacklisted as a terrorist organization in Turkey and the US.

2. Turkey wants to halt the US dependency on Syria’s Kurds in the battle of liberating Raqqa from ISIS, and instead depend on armed Syrian factions affiliated with Turkey, as these factions have participated in the Operation Euphrates Shield. 

Ankara rejects the participation of Syrian-Kurdish forces in the battle to liberate Raqqa due to its growing fear that liberating the city at the hands of the Kurds will lead to the birth of a Kurdish region on its southern borders with Syria. Turkey further fears international and regional recognition of this Kurdish entity similar to what happened in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Turkey believes this is threatens its national security particularly as around 20 million Kurds demand autonomy.

3. Extraditing the leader of the Gulen’s Movement, Fethullah Gulen, to Turkey. Turkey accuses Gulen of being involved in the failed military coup in the summer of 2016. Following Erdogan’s meeting with Trump, the US continued to adopt the same traditional rhetoric mainly concerning the legal and constitutional aspects of such an extradition. 

What’s interesting is that at the same time as Erdogan’s visit to the US, the Washington Post published an article by Gulen on May 15, 2017. The article, titled "The Turkey I no Longer Know", talks about the autocracy of the Turkish regime under Erdogan’s rule. Some considered this article an indirect American message to Turkey stipulating that it’s not possible to hand Gulen over.

After the Turkish president’s visit to the US ended, it seems that none of the visit’s major goals were achieved. Turkey and the US did not reach an agreement regarding the controversial affairs, and perhaps all what the US did for Erdogan was make political and diplomatic promises.

The most important promises include increasing bilateral cooperation in the military and security fields, and increasing cooperation to fight ISIS and aid in the Turkish war against the Kurdistan Workers' Party. It’s worth noting that security cooperation between Ankara and Washington against the Kurdistan Workers' Party is more than two decades old.

Turkey’s Options

America’s insistence to resume its support of the Syrian Kurds has increased despite Turkey’s objections. Turkey also suspects America’s intentions especially that the issue concerns a critical affair that is basically the essence of Turkish national security. Therefore, we see talks about Turkey’s options amid the US’ continuous policies that anger Ankara. These options are:

1. Threat of resorting to the military options alone and carrying out military raids on the posts of the Kurdish People's Protection Units in North Syria. This would be similar to the raids that Turkey carried out on April 25, 2017 when Turkish warplanes targeted Kurdish units’ positions in Karachuk in the far northeast of Syria. This is in addition to hinting to the performance of massive military operations that are similar to Operation Euphrates Shield. Turkish sources spoke about an operation entitled Operation Tigris Shield in Sinjar in North Iraq or Operation Sun of Euphrates in Tell Abyad in North Syria.

2. Resuming talks with the American administration to conclude a deal regarding the post liberation of Raqqa phase. Turkey is talking about three basic conditions in this regard. The first is not allowing the Kurds to control Raqqa after liberating it from ISIS. The second is the regression of the Kurdish units to the east of the Euphrates, i.e. to the historical zones of the Syrian Kurds. The third is that America’s temporary military support does not transform into permanent support that establishes for a Kurdish entity, which aspires to be recognized. 

Although it’s difficult to acknowledge that the US will respond to these Turkish conditions, one can say that are still in the negotiations phase, especially considering Washington’s concern to maintain its historical alliance with Ankara for strategic reasons relevant to the significance of Turkey’s geostrategic position in the international conflict over the Middle East region.

3. Heading in the direction of officially announcing that it will not participate in the battle of liberating Raqqa considering that the US has finalized its choice to depend on the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Kurdish People's Protection Units.

4. Heading in the direction of adopting a new policy of gradual openness towards the Syrian Kurdish component, in order to eventually recognize it in parallel with the previous declaration, like what happened with Iraq’s Kurdistan. Perhaps this paves the way for Ankara to deal with the Kurdistan Workers' Party and to return to political negotiations to peacefully resolve the Kurdish affair in Turkey. Such an approach is accepted by America and Europe, and contributes to improving Turkey’s image after it was accused by western media outlets of being an authoritarian state that confiscates freedoms.

Different Strategies

Turkey’s insistence that the US specifies its policy towards the Kurds in Syria in favor of maintaining its historical alliance with Ankara reveals Turkey’s lack of awareness in the nature of Washington’s policy. The US bases the latter on its priorities and interests and not on anything else. This policy may require allying with several parties even if the latter are political rivals.

Perhaps what’s happening today regarding US relations with the Kurds and Turkey comes within the context of its policy to manage balances with the two allies. The American administration’s priority is summed up in two basic matters. The first is inflicting a major defeat on ISIS in Raqqa in order to keep up the promise that Trump made during his presidential campaign. The second is not to lose the Kurdish ally for reasons related to international balances in the Syrian crisis, as the Kurds are the US’ only ally in Syria. In addition, the US does not want to lose its Turkish ally for strategic reasons as Turkey has geopolitical significance for American policy. Turkey is also important for the US regarding the conflict with Russia over the Middle East. Turkey gains importance for the West in general as well on the level of current international conflicts

The US and Turkey are both keen to maintain their historical relations for reasons related to each party's interests. However, this does not mean overlooking the critical phase which the relations have reached. Turkey believes that the American stance in support of the Kurds violates the historical alliance between the two countries. Deep within, Ankara thinks this policy targets its national security considering that what’s happening will lead to the birth of a Kurdish state, which will consequently divide Turkey. Meanwhile, the US thinks that its support of the Kurds exceeds the latter’s cause and is more about the US's own strategy. This strategy is based on its interests even if it contradicts with what Turkey views as principles in the country’s relations. Perhaps this is what Erdogan’s meeting with Trump focused on.

What’s certain is that the American administration is aware that Turkey’s wish to suspend its support of the Kurds and exclude them from Raqqa’s battle does not serve the purpose of fighting ISIS. The US knows that Turkey has its motives. Meanwhile, Turkey thinks the American-Kurdish alliance is a matter of life or death for its traditional policies. More likely, the disputes between the two countries will escalate in the next phase. This raises a question about Turkey’s relation with the West as represented by the US and Europe is: Will we witness a new reframing of this relation or the disintegration of the historical alliance between them?

This question will worry Erdogan a lot in the next phase. He may find it difficult to find an answer as long as the other options seem more costly to the Turkish policy that has been based on a link to the West ever since the Turkish republic was established in 1923.

Keywords: TurkeyIraqSyriaKurds