Erdogan's War in Syria Could Wreck U.S.-Turkey Relations
Turkey’s decision to launch an operation in Afrin in northern Syria has opened a new front and phase in the Syrian conflict. Ankara says its offensive alongside Syrian rebel allies is aimed at eliminating the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) control of the mountainous area around the city of Afrin that has been a mostly Kurdish-controlled enclave for five years. Ankara’s momentous decision will have aftershocks far beyond its immediate results. The thousands of Syrian rebels Turkey has recruited to fight alongside the operation are now being co-opted into a Turkish agenda that is mostly aimed at removing what Ankara views as a terrorist threat from its border. In addition the offensive is aimed at forcing the United States to choose sides between the YPG, which has been its partner against Islamic State for years, and Ankara, which has been a Washington ally since the 1950s.
On January 24 President Donald Trump spoke with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and “relayed concerns that escalating violence in Afrin, Syria, risks undercutting our shared goals in Syria,” according to a White House statement. Trump urged Turkey to deescalate and limit its military action. However, Turkey is already deeply embroiled in a conflict in Afrin. The Turkish military claims it has killed 260 Kurdish YPG and ISIS fighters since January 20. It has carried out hundreds of airstrikes with F-16s. In addition Turkish tanks and ground forces were engaged along with up to twenty-five thousand Syrian rebels in the offensive. Can Turkey pull back after claiming it wanted to build a nineteen kilometers buffer zone inside Syria, which would involve taking most of Afrin? Either way its offensive has forever changed the map of Syria, putting Syrian rebels against Kurds in the first major clashes of the war, and risking a major break with Washington that has pitted the State Department against the Pentagon and ruffled feathers in the Trump administration. Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters in Indonesia that the Afrin battle “distracts from the international efforts to ensure the defeat of ISIS.”
On January 23 Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told CNN that Turkey would only cooperate with Washington once the United States stopped supporting the YPG. “Then we can talk about the future of Syria,” Kalin said. His statements are part of a series of increasingly bellicose and stark statements from Ankara portraying the United States’ role in Syria as a threat. “A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our borders. Our mission is to strangle it before it’s even born,” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on January 15. Erdogan holds up a carrot-and-stick in this statement, both portraying Ankara as a victim, arguing that the United States could be allowed to work with Turkey again if Washington behaves, and also making threats. In a speech to municipal leaders in Ankara on January 24 Erdogan claimed that the Obama administration has broken promises to Turkey to keep the YPG, which Turkey refers to as “terrorists” east of the Euphrates. “We’ve done our part and they have not,” Erdogan said. “They promised they would send the terrorists in this area to the east of the Euphrates and leave Manbij to its rightful owners.”
For Turkey, the YPG is part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which it has been fighting for decades. Since 2015, when a ceasefire broke down, there has been a major conflict in eastern Turkey. Meanwhile Ankara has watched as the YPG has grown in power in eastern Syria, defeating ISIS in Kobani with U.S. help in 2015 and defeating ISIS in battle after battle. For the Pentagon, which found the YPG valiant partners, this was not a terrorist group but liberators removing the stain of ISIS from Syria. In 2016 things became more complex when the YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces, which were an umbrella group the United States and YPG had helped construct, crossed the Euphrates and took Manbij, a city twenty kilometers from Turkey. This prompted Ankara to intervene in Syria in August 2016. It attacked ISIS with the help of Syrian rebel allies and clearing ISIS from the border in an operation termed “Euphrates Shield.” Turkey said it was fighting “terrorists,” by which it meant ISIS and the YPG.