May 11, 2017
US President Donald J. Trump’s decision to arm Kurdish rebels in Syria, despite objections from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, indicates that the new administration’s Turkey policy is secondary to winning the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

This decision “would suggest to me that Trump really doesn’t have a Turkey policy,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “Turkey policy is secondary to the need to prosecute the war against ISIS quickly,” he added.

“The key actors in the US bureaucracy are not on team Turkey,” said Stein. “They don’t care. They are elevating different priorities now.”

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) has been an effective military proxy in the United States’ war on ISIS.  On May 10, Trump approved arming the YPG with the goal of retaking the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS in the country. Stein said US troops will “embed, advise, and assist,” the YPG in their assault on Raqqa.

In order to directly arm the YPG, Trump sent a letter to Congress waiving a provision in the bill that regulates US military support for vetted Syrian opposition groups.

“You had to go through that step at a minimum to get legal cover, because the amount of [military equipment] the US is about to send to the YPG is a lot,” according to Stein.

“The YPG was not receiving assistance from the United States until the issuance of this waiver,” said Stein, “and that’s why it’s explosive for Turkey.” The YPG is affiliated with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a Kurdish organization based in Turkey and recognized by both Turkey and the United States as a terrorist group. While the United States makes a distinction between the YPG and the PKK, Turkey does not.

Turkey warned the United States that its decision to arm the YPG would have consequences.

Stein said Erdoğan “could try and cozy up with Russia to win some sort of broader concessions in a future peace deal, but Moscow has been using the YPG as a counter escalation tool in Syria to undermine Turkey for quite some time now. Russia knows the YPG is a point of leverage with Ankara, and isn't afraid to use it.”  On May 3, Erdoğan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to reaffirm their cooperation in Syria. Alternative options range from rhetorical to diplomatic to military avenues, however, Stein said, “all of those options are bad for Turkey, and they know it.”

Erdoğan will meet with Trump in Washington on May 17. At that meeting, “Erdoğan will try a last-ditch effort to say ‘you’re making a mistake here,’” Stein predicted. “I don’t think it will work.”

Instead, he said, Turkey should seek concessions in the form of intelligence-sharing, a solution already set forth by the Pentagon, as well as a role for Turkey in the reconstruction of Syria, an issue which remains contested due to the involvement of the Kurds in that process.

While Trump’s decision will have a negative impact on US-Turkey relations for some time to come, ultimately, according to Stein, “the structure of the debate, Turkey or the Kurds, has always been slightly false.” Rather, the decision for Trump boiled down to the fact that in the assault on Raqqa: “It was the Kurds, or 20,000 [US troops].”

“What would you choose?” asked Stein

Aaron Stein spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Rachel Ansley. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: What is new about this US declaration of support for the Kurds in Syria? This was a point of tension with Turkey during the Obama administration. What is Trump doing differently?

Stein:  Previously, [the United States was] arming the Arab elements grafted onto the YPG that together comprised the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The president had to issue a waiver to Congress to facilitate the direct arming of the YPG. The YPG was not receiving overt assistance from the United States until the issuance of this waver. What this waiver does is it allows the direct provision of military aid to the YPG, and that’s why it’s explosive for Turkey.

Q: What kind of support will be provided?

Stein: Within [the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve] CJTFOIR, there’s the Task Force to… provide direct assistance to the SDF and the YPG. What Trump has done as part of lifting the troop caps [limit of US troops on the ground in Syria] is more conventional troops have gone in. They will embed, advise, and assist as the battle for Raqqa begins inside the city.

Q: What does Trump’s decision to arm the Kurds, despite Erdoğan’s objections, mean for the future of US-Turkey relations?

Stein: This was coming. The Turks had an inkling that this was coming, and tried to stop it. What it shows is that the Trump administration has devolved decision-making about Turkey down to the combatant command level. Turkey policy is secondary to the need to prosecute the war against ISIS quickly. It would suggest to me that Trump really doesn’t have a Turkey policy. The key actors in the US bureaucracy are not on team Turkey. They don’t care. They are elevating different priorities now.

It’s not good for the future of bilateral relations, but it’s ultimately up to Turkey. There’s a fundamental asymmetry in the relationship. The United States is very powerful, the most powerful country on earth, and Turkey is a mid-level power that’s not very powerful. So, it’s up to Turkey. The United States is going to do what it wants to do. Turkey can deal with it and realize it has broader interests with the United States, or it can go its own path, and that’s a choice that Ankara has to make.

Q: Turkey’s prime minister has said there will be consequences for this decision. What could those consequences look like and is there a way for the United States to offset them?

Stein: Turkey has options. The power asymmetry is there, but Turkey is nevertheless within its region a powerful country. The options range from yelling but not really doing anything to an invasion of Syria against American wishes which the US cannot stop, an invasion of Iraq to move on Sinjar [territory with a Yazidi milia with PKK embeds and PKK support],… or they could try and cozy up with Russia to win some sort of broader concessions in a future peace deal, but Moscow has been using the YPG as a counter escalation tool in Syria to undermine Turkey for quite some time now. Russia knows the YPG is a point of leverage with Ankara, and isn't afraid to use it. All of those options are bad for Turkey, and they know it, so they are really at a disadvantage in terms of dictating the next steps of the war on ISIS.

Q: How will this feature in the upcoming meeting between Trump and Erdoğan?

Stein: Erdoğan will try a last-ditch effort to say “you’re making a mistake here.” I don’t think it will work.

Q: How important is Turkey in the anti-ISIS coalition? Does this development risk losing Ankara as an ally?

Stein: They’re important only in that they host the coalition. Incirlik [air base], where they fly missions out of, is important. It cuts down fuel costs, allows fighters to stay on station longer so you can bomb more targets and see more, and will be used to help with Raqqa. Turkey will go insane, but it is their air base that will be used to support the YPG. But other than that, Turkey doesn’t do much. You have to presume that CentCom in their war planning factored in the possibility that Turkey could close Incirlik and kick the coalition out. I don’t think Turkey will do that, but it’s obviously something to contend with. If that happens… there are [other] air bases in the region.

Q: Will Turkey still participate in the assault on Raqqa?

Stein: No. They participate by hosting, but no, they haven’t been part of the coalition bombing ISIS since November 2015.

Q: What will this mean for the governance of Raqqa if/when the city is recovered?

Stein: The SDF has set up a governance council already. They are Arabs, they are largely called from the Raqawis, and they will be installed once the city falls. This is actually the central debate. The Department of State is in charge of rebuilding. But, the Department of State has to make a policy decision about how deeply they want to embed the [Kurdish Democratic Union Party] PYD, because even though the councils are Arab, they are entirely propped up by PKK networks. That’s the real debate.

The debate was never about whether we would use the Kurds to take Raqqa, there’s nobody else to take Raqqa. The debate was always about what do you do after Raqqa falls, and then, begin to start propping up what is essentially shadow PKK governing structures in northeastern Syria, and that one hasn’t been resolved.

As you begin to build governance structures it gets you to your end scenarios inside Syria. What does that look like with US assistance? How does that fit into a broader peace plan inside Syria? The policy choice in the State Department remains unresolved about how far they want to push this, because reconstruction will prop up what are PKK networks throughout northeastern Syria.

Q: Why did the White House make this decision, in spite of the ramifications?

Stein: You had to go through that step at a minimum to get legal cover, because the amount of [military equipment] the US is about to send to the YPG is a lot. And, there’s nobody else to do it [take Raqqa]. The debate has always been about not really Turkey doing it, but either 20,000 [US troops], or 5,000—a mix of [Army] rangers, special forces, the 82nd Airborne, and some Marines that are always in Kuwait—and then 25,000 SDF. What would you choose? The structure of the debate, Turkey or the Kurds, has always been slightly false. It was the Kurds, or 20,00 [US troops].

Q: Is there a way that Turkey and the United States can reach a compromise on this issue which will satisfy both parties?

Stein: No. We have to throw out expectations that we can come together on this issue. The Turks are going to have to swallow it, and then that’s it. What the Turks need to do is start asking for something different; they can’t stop the war plan. They need to start thinking bigger, more strategically. There’s too narrow a focus. Ask for something else, something that we can deliver. What is it that we can give at this point in the bilateral relationship? We can give guarantees on no recognition of PYD statehood, we can give guarantees on elements of reconstruction [who is in control], we can give guarantees on Turkish participation in reconstruction. We can give a lot, but it has to be after Raqqa falls.

The flipside of that argument is that ISIS is being held back because the YPG is ruthless and effective in how it polices its own territory. Do we really want to force the YPG to make concessions? This is the debate. 

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.  

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