Allen told the journalists and experts gathered at the Brookings Institute about the first anti-ISIS meeting at NATO headquarters in December 2014: “We had Cyprus there, with Turkey and Greece also there. This was such an emergency, and the diplomacy was so profound by our ambassadors . . . it really came together very well.”
But during the crucial Battle of Kobani in October 2015, when the U.S. military first began to arm Syrian Kurdish fighters, tensions flared up.
“The border was closed. Nothing was coming to [the defenders of Kobani] across the Turkish border,” Allen said, explaining that the U.S. military had to fly through Syrian airspace to supply the besieged Kurdish fighters. “As they were approaching the drop site, I was on the phone to the ambassadors of the various countries . . . There was a huge sense of appreciation from all the ambassadors, except the Turkish ambassador, who was very quick to register his displeasure.”
Allen’s successor, Brett McGurk, pushed the Obama administration even closer to the SDF. He later resigned in protest over Trump’s December 2018 decision to begin pulling American troops out of Syria, publicly denouncing the “wholesale abandonment of the SDF.”
Turkey has turned McGurk into a hated symbol of the U.S.-SDF partnership. McGurk spoke at the same September event as Allen, where a man who identified himself with the Turkish embassy shouted that “millions are under the boot of Marxist terrorists!”
McGurk laughed off the comment, but Allen felt compelled to respond. “Turkey, in the end, is happy” about the SDF clearing ISIS from its borders, he claimed.
“Turkey has a CENTCOM problem.” explained Soner Çağaptay, director of the Turkey program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of Erdoğan’s Empire. “CENTCOM built a tactical relationship with the YPG, but Turkey sees this as unacceptable after ISIS is defeated.”
CENTCOM is the acronym for U.S. Central Command, which is the combatant command in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East. Although its area of operations includes most of Turkey’s neighbors, U.S. forces in Turkey itself fall under EUCOM, the U.S. European Command.
Heras complained to the National Interest that “EUCOM acts like Erdoğan's agent in the U.S. defense establishment.”
Çağaptay believes that relations have improved somewhat since U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. became Joint Chief of Staff. Dunford has done a better job of bridging the gap between EUCOM and CENTCOM, in Çağaptay’s view.
“CENTCOM is used to dealing with weak and failed states. EUCOM deals with strong allies,” Çağaptay told the National Interest. “The Turks are turned off when they’re treated as a weak state.”
The Rise of Ambassador James Jeffrey
After McGurk quit the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo replaced him with a candidate tailor-made to smooth over the rocky relationship: Ambassador James Jeffrey.
“Jim Jeffrey is a force to be reckoned with,” said Çağaptay, a former colleague of Jeffrey at the Washington Institute. “He’s a strong believer in the U.S.-Turkish relationship. He’s very realpolitik.”
Parsi explained how it all fits together: “Jeffrey's worldview is one in which he strongly believes that the U.S. needs to have a very strong military presence, and that without U.S. power backing it, the international system—the whole thing—will collapse.”
Indeed, the special envoy has worked at the very center of the U.S.-Turkish alliance against communism. Jeffrey began his career as a State Department political-military officer in Turkey from 1983 to 1987, at the beginning of the PKK’s rebellion. And he returned as U.S. Ambassador to Turkey in 2008, when the insurgency was heating up again.
During a September 26 press conference, Jeffrey referred to “PKK-linked element of the Kurdish movement in Syria that later expanded into the SDF.”
“The Turks, understandably, having lost many tens of thousands of people to a PKK insurgency that began in 1984, are very worried about a large force of people commanded by folks who have ties to the PKK,” he said. “We acknowledged that. We actually talked to the people in northeast Syria—and there are many groups—and they all sort of understand that the Turks do have a reason to be concerned.”
Jeffrey’s signature achievement in Syria has been the “safe zone.” The SDF agreed to dismantle its fortifications along the Turkish border and allow joint U.S.-Turkish patrols on the Syrian side. In exchange, the U.S. military is shielding the SDF from a deeper Turkish incursion.
Turkish officials have signalled that they’re not satisfied with their end of the bargain. It’s unclear how much more the SDF can give, according to Gönül Tol of the Middle East Institute. “At this point, having a safe zone that is thirty kilometers deep that is totally off limits to the [SDF] would really undermine U.S. strategy,” she said at the Johns Hopkins event.
Given the importance of the Kurdish question to its internal politics, Turkey has shown that it is willing to take matters into its own hands. In January 2018, Turkish forces invaded the SDF-held enclave of Afrin, which they are still occupying.
On Saturday, Erdoğan called elements of the safe zone “fiction,” threatening to launch a unilateral invasion east of the Euphrates “as soon as today or tomorrow.”
There were no U.S. troops in Afrin at the time, but there are east of the Euphrates. If Turkish forces were to kill an American soldier, Tol said, “then all bets are off.”
But Jeffrey calculates that it’s not worth throwing away the relationship with Turkey—a state of eighty million people and the second-largest army in NATO—for a non-state militia, according to Çağaptay.
“The State Department is always going to privilege state actors over non-state actors. It’s how it’s wired,” said Heras, who has observed SDF operations inside Syria. “The State Department is not the [Department of Defense]. It’s not the CIA. It’s not an organization that deals particularly well in murky and gray zone contexts. Engaging with a treaty ally state actor is exactly the type of work the State Department is best suited for.”
As former Ambassador Robert Ford complained in an October 1 op-ed, “[t]he Americans are creating a bigger risk to peace in Syria over the long-term. They are providing a military umbrella for a mini-state to emerge in eastern Syria.”
“[Turkey] is a government. So they have money. They have lobbyists working for them,” said Xulam, who founded AKIN because “every country had an embassy, but we [Kurds] didn’t have one.”
But the U.S.-Kurdish alliance is giving Kurds unprecedented access in Washington. On October 2, the leadership of the Syrian Democratic Council briefed reporters on their recent visit to the U.S. capital.
“The parties we met with were mostly from Congress and the State Department, but we see that they have begun to put their weight behind a political solution,” said Executive President Ilham Ahmed. “In addition, there is a need for lengthy discussions and debates about how to reach a true and realistic solution. I focus on the word realistic so that we are not being fanciful in proposing projects or solutions.”
“Mr. James Jeffrey played a role in conveying the discussions between us and Turkey, and we thank him,” she told the National Interest in Arabic. “The Pentagon also played a positive role, and we also thank them.”
Ahmed said that Jeffrey was the highest-ranking official that she met with during her most recent visit. When asked about her brief encounter with Trump during a January visit, Ahmed smiled silently. Her translator added in English: “no comment.”
The Bible and the Bill of Rights
Özsoy, whose People’s Democratic Party is the main legal avenue for Kurdish dissent in Turkey, also told the National Interest that U.S. officials were “quite receptive” to his latest visit. Shortly after a meeting of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission at the House of Representatives, he said that “there is more interest in talking to people who are either from Turkey or who work on Turkey,” thanks to the S-400 dispute and the Syrian war.
“They are less into questions of, say, human rights and democracy in Turkey. That is a bit discouraging,” he added. “We are also trying to bring in that discussion about democracy, about human rights, about the rule of law, about the whole crackdown on the democratic opposition.”
Traditionally, dissidents like Özsoy could rely on activists focused on human rights and a liberal world order.
Xulam first came to Washington in 1993 to draw attention to Saddam Hussein’s infamous gas attack against Kurds at Helebçe, and soon expanded his mission to include the plight of Kurds in his native Turkey. Among the congressional Democrats and Republicans that Xulam worked with at the beginning, he found natural allies in former Rep. Bob Filner, a Jewish-American civil rights pioneer in the American South, and former Rep. Elizabeth Furse, a white anti-Apartheid activist who grew up in South Africa.
“[Furse] opened her arms to us right away. I didn’t have to educate her. Of course, Turkey is not South Africa, but oppression is oppression,” Xulam said. “Bob Filner—who when he was nineteen had joined Freedom Riders, and had gone to Mississippi, and had been beaten up, and thrown into prison—I didn’t have to educate him on the oppression the Kurds were going through because he had familiarity with what the dominant race can do to a minority.”