A US commander visits a YPG base struck by Turkish airstrikes. Photo: Rodi Said/Reuters
As if Russian airstrikes, ISIS suicide attacks, and chemical warfare were not enough, Turkish troops now join the Syrian civil war, a conflict entering its eighth year. On January 20, the media focused on the American government shutdown, providing no coverage on the day’s most significant development: Turkish president Recep Erdogan launched his long-promised assault on the Kurds in northern Syria, one of America’s closest allies in the campaign against ISIS. President Trump rightfully declares that progress has been made in Syria—especially with the impending defeat of ISIS—but Turkey’s meddling has thrown a wrench into the complete web of alliances and animosities that drive this civil war. The United States must somehow find the line between applying pressure on its estranged Turkish ally to end its ill-advised involvement, and pushing Turkey into Russia’s orbit.
Turkey has contended with a Kurdish insurgency for decades, and President Erdogan—in power since 2002—uses this simmering conflict for political gain, citing the dangers of Kurdish terrorism in his successful bid last year to greatly expand his political powers. Erdogan displays no subtlety in his approach on Syria; Turkey was the prime conduit for weapons and supplies for the rebels beginning in 2011, the start of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Since Russia intervened in 2015, Turkey has gradually accepted that the rebellion will not succeed.
Erdogan has chosen to curry favor with Vladimir Putin, going so far as to purchase Russian weapons systems against the explicit warnings of the United States, to allow Turkey the latitude to conduct operations in Syria. Turkey used the justification that because the Kurdish YPG are loosely affiliated with the PKK militia within Turkey that has waged an insurgency against Ankara for decades, they have every right to roll back the expansion of YPG-ruled Rojava, a semi-autonomous region in northern Syria. The Kurds in Rojava are committed to egalitarian, democratic principles, and have willingly fought side by side with American soldiers against ISIS. Since 2015, the United States has provided them with arms and intelligence, going so far as to embed its special forces within YPG units.
A Turkish flag flies above a government building in Afrin. Photo: Paolo Pascual/Reuters
Erdogan ousted the YPG from the Afrin region in March, a slice of Rojava that borders Turkey; since then, resistance to Turkey by the local population, a willing coalition of Kurds and Arabs, has intensified into a war of attrition. If the current offensive escalates in intensity and scope, Trump must pressure Erdogan to prevent a precarious situation from getting completely out of hand. Afrin is a mountainous region that the YPG controlled for several years; local sympathizers, weaponry, and terrain make the area very difficult to occupy.
Brutal fighting between the two American allies serves only to benefit our adversaries in Syria, whether it be ISIS or Assad attempting to regain territory, or Russia hoping to deepen the growing divide between Turkey and the West. A series of bombings and ambushes in recent weeks prove that the YPG still have a presence in Afrin and intend to make the Turkish occupation unsustainable. A local population not always enamored with the YPG has even less sympathy for Turkey, begrudging the thuggery of the Islamist groups Turkey brought into the region.
To abandon our Kurdish allies, who have sacrificed so much to defeat ISIS and create their own democracy in northern Syria, would be an indignity. Trump blocked the sale of bleeding-edge F-35 warplanes, but our opposition to Turkey’s intervention must be made even more clear—though the United States should be careful to not push Turkey into Putin’s arms.
Russian warplanes in Hmeymin, Syria. Photo: Vladim Savitsky/Russian Defense Ministry
More importantly, the crisis presents an opportunity to rethink America’s relationship with Erdogan’s Turkey. Turkey is considered an important regional ally, but has grown unpredictable and autocratic under Erdogan. The Obama administration wisely recognized that the YPG are America’s most effective ally in the region, but failed to comprehend the vehemence of Turkey’s opposition to YPG advances. By promising Turkey that the YPG would withdraw from the hard-won town of Manbij after liberating it from ISIS in 2016—when there was little possibility that the YPG would do such a thing—the United States left Ankara feeling betrayed after the withdrawal failed to materialize. By the time the Obama administration recognized that Turkey sought to fight the Kurds, not just ISIS, valuable trust had all but eroded between all three parties.
The Trump administration cannot make the same mistake. It must not make promises it cannot keep, and also must respond to Turkey’s lazy conflation of the YPG with genuine terrorist threats like ISIS. Turkey’s security concerns should be recognized, but there has yet to be any evidence of any YPG involvement with the PKK insurgency. Turkey can hardly justify the bloodshed and instability that its unrestrained military operation entails. More dangerous still, Turkey has indicated its desire and willingness to attack the Manbij region, where significant American forces are embedded in the YPG. The United States must draw a clear line in the sand and declare that it will not withdraw these troops, and that any attack on the YPG would be an attack on America itself. A recent agreement for the YPG to withdraw from Manbij that would be enforced by joint American and Turkish patrols, offers no guarantee of a resolution to the growing tension.
Only a decade ago, Turkey seemed to be on a slow but stable march towards membership in the European Union but now is on the path to autocracy, Islamic fundamentalism, and political instability. The attempted coup of July 2016 gave Erdogan the pretext to crush any dissenters, whether they be journalists, his political opposition, or the Kurds. He rewrote the constitution to allow himself, theoretically, to rule Turkey until the late 2030s. Not only is Turkey transforming from one of the Muslim world’s only democracies into a dictatorship, it is withdrawing from cooperation with the West.
Is Turkey a reliable ally in promoting American interests and values? The experience with dictatorships from Egypt to Zaire indicates that America cannot prop up an autocrat indefinitely. Even worse, the despots the United States find favorable can quickly turn into mortal enemies, as with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Democracy is not yet dead in Turkey, and its involvement in Syria could swiftly be brought to an end. As the Syrian civil war winds down, President Trump indicates his goal to reduce American engagement in Rojava at the risk of further Turkish offensives. If Erdogan intends to take his country down a more confrontational path, if the United States wants to show the world that it will not abandon its true allies, the threat of economic and political isolation by the West against Turkey must be made clear.