The recent downturn in US-Turkish relations following the Turkish military’s cross-border military operation in Kurdish-held Afrin, dubbed Operation Olive Branch, should prompt a re-evaluation of American interests in Syria. Afrin is an enclave under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG). The PYD is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group active in Turkey since the early 1980s. The YPG is also the main-militia in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the multi-ethnic grouping of militias that has done the bulk of the fighting against Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) east of the Euphrates River.
The United States is concerned that a prolonged Turkish ground campaign in Afrin will prompt elements of the SDF to leave the frontlines with ISIS to fight Turkish ground forces and allied Arab and Turkmen opposition proxies. In addition, Washington is concerned that Ankara may use military force in Manbij, the SDF’s westernmost stronghold, some 15 miles west of the Euphrates River, which could draw more SDF fighters to protect it. The SDF’s taking of Manbij in August 2016 remains a point of serious contention between the two NATO allies. Ankara had previously warned that it would not tolerate an open-ended YPG presence west of the river. The United States, frustrated by lackluster efforts to take the city with Turkish and American backed Arab majority fighters, eventually made the choice to go against Turkey and use the SDF to force ISIS from the city.
The US-backed SDF took Manbij, but doing so triggered Turkey’s first cross-border operation, dubbed Euphrates Shield, to take the then ISIS-held town of al-Bab. Operation Euphrates Shield had two aims: Clear ISIS from the border and, in doing so, take al-Bab to prevent the further expansion of the YPG along the M4 highway to connect SDF held territory with Afrin—the current area of conflict between Turkey and the YPG in Syria’s northwest. The United States military overtly patrols in Manbij, and the SDF has set up a civilian governing body, the Manbij Military Council, to govern it. However, Turkey rejects the governing body and has threatened to dislodge with military force. The Turkish threat has raised the specter of a direct US-Turkish military clash, an outcome that would obviously have negative repercussions for bilateral relations and would threaten to destabilize the NATO alliance.
The question, of course, is what should the United States do to ensure that its own interests are realized in Syria. The Trump administration has defined those interests as continuing the fight against ISIS, providing basic stabilization support to the SDF, and using US territorial gains to force favorable concessions from the Assad regime at the Geneva talks, the UN-sponsored peace platform that the US supports.
US Policy on Turkey under Trump
The Trump administration views Russia as a potential enabler of US interests in Syria. As the most powerful external actor backing the regime, Moscow often positions itself to speak for the regime. The Trump administration telegraphed a willingness to work through Moscow to force regime concessions and to try and deliver an outcome that would help lead to a political transition. A transition, according to this logic, would then undermine Iranian interests in the Middle East, an overarching Trump administration policy goal. In Syria, where Iran has sent troops, equipment, and cash to stabilize and fight on behalf of the Assad regime, the Trump administration has previously signaled its intent to try and drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran—an outcome that would contribute to the broader effort to roll-back Iranian influence in the region.
The Trump administration took a series of steps to pursue this policy. First, in March 2017, US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told reporters that the US priority in Syria was no longer focused on “getting Assad out.” Five months later, in July 2017, the administration ended the covert arming of Syrian rebels committed to the overthrow of the regime. The twin signals were clear: The US will no longer work to use military force to overthrow the regime.
However, during this period the regime and Russia made a serious error: Damascus attacked a Syrian city with chemical weapons, killing hundreds. In retaliation, the Trump administration ordered cruise missile strikes. The impact of the strikes has been quite limited inside of Syria. However, in the United States, the outcome has limited any flexibility to find a solution to the Assad question and has once again emphasized the need to “get tough” on the regime and to use pressure to force a change. For Russia, the use of chemical weapons derailed on-going efforts to resuscitate Bashar al Assad’s international legitimacy and to win support for an obvious fait accompli—Assad maintaining power post-conflict.
The strategic impasse, now, starts in Washington and ends in Moscow—and Ankara is wedged in between both. Russia is still working to win legitimacy for its client, Assad, and has turned to Turkey to get it. In a convoluted and odd agreement negotiated in Astana, Iran, Turkey, and Russia agreed to a series of de-escalation zones. The final was in Idlib and requires Turkish forces to deploy to up to 12 different locations along a carefully delineated line of control running parallel to the north-south M5 highway. Iran, it appears, has serious reservations about the agreement and has reportedly sanctioned the shelling of Turkish forces—killing one—that have moved into these positions. Nevertheless, the three sides still routinely meet, although it is clear the Russians and the Turks operate a separate negotiating track. The intent, it seems, is for Turkey to take ownership of the anti-Assad opposition inside this zone and to negotiate alongside these groups with the regime. Russia has sought to win UN support for its diplomatic efforts, but the US and its allies have put pressure on the body to focus only on Geneva, where Turkey also plays a role.
The Russian presence in northwestern Syria also means that Turkey must work through Moscow before it launches any cross-border military action. This was the case before Operation Euphrates Shield and, again, before Operation Olive Branch in Afrin. The Russian-Turkish track has moved in parallel to the total implosion of US-Turkish relations, giving rise to concerns that Moscow and Ankara could work together (alongside Tehran and Damascus) to put pressure on the United States. Amongst these powers, Washington stands out as the only actor focused on the fight against Islamic State—and therefore, the United States could be susceptible to pressure to leave Syria if all the others gang up on it. A US withdrawal, in turn, would free up Turkey to more forcefully target SDF positions, increase Russian influence in the Middle East, and give Iran more breathing room to deepen its influence. For precisely these reasons, US officials now argue that a premature withdrawal would be detrimental to Washington’s longer-term interests and, therefore, there is an incentive to retain a military footprint in the country.
As it stands, no country has articulated a clear and coherent strategy. Russia, for example, has been at war in Syria for close to 2.5 years and still has not managed to take back control over more than 50% of the country. Iran’s situation is the same. Turkey has shifted its priorities from the overthrow of Assad to the defeat of the YPG, while also assuming control over an anti-Assad opposition that has not yet abandoned the goal of regime change. Ankara has had success re-appropriating its Arab and Turkmen clients into an anti-YPG force, but these ground forces have proved incapable in combat. The US began its war with a narrowly circumscribed counter-terrorism mission, only to have settled on an open-ended military commitment that requires defending its local partners from the Syrian regime, its allies, and Turkey.
US Options with Turkey
The United States now has a few options, and none of them are good. The first, of course, is status quo. This option would entail an open-ended commitment in the northeast and continued US engagement with Turkey to try and manage tensions. This approach has allowed for Russia to play the United States and Turkey off against one another, which increased trans-Atlantic tensions and pushes Ankara towards a policy of disengagement from Russia’s ultimate geo-political foe, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, the US military mission has been successful, ISIS has been degraded, and a continued US presence will allow for US forces to continue hunting for Islamic State leadership targets. This approach would sacrifice the relationship with Turkey for the twin goals of defeating ISIS and putting pressure on Iran. The US-Turkish relationship could, in theory, be revived later, but the road to rapprochement would be long and difficult.
A second US option is premature withdrawal, wherein the US declares victory over ISIS, withdraws from Syria to Iraq, and focuses its efforts on the central government of Iraq’s post-conflict efforts. This approach does not address the threat of a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria, which could empower ISIS to return in areas that SDF forces would vacate in the Euphrates River Valley. The US would, in this scenario, extricate itself from its sponsorship of the SDF—and therefore take a step towards normalizing its relationship with Turkey. However, its entirely unclear if Turkey wants a total US withdrawal from Syria, or just a small removal of forces from a key flashpoint: Manbij. A total US withdrawal could lead Turkey to take military action, which would almost certainly bog down and risk destabilizing a NATO ally—an outcome that is antithetical to US interests, as well.
A third option is for the United States to work with Moscow to limit Turkish cross-border action in both Afrin and Manbij, where both the US and Russia are the dominant external actors. In return, though, the US would have to de-emphasize regime change in favor of robust negotiations with Moscow, essentially a return to the Trump administrations pre-March 2017 approach. This option would recognize the obvious: The US cannot solve Syria without Moscow, and vice versa. The US would have to acquiesce to Assad remaining in power, or at least a coherent transition where Assad’s interests (and therefore, Moscow’s position in Damascus) is retained. As part of this approach, the United States and Russia would work jointly to de-escalate tensions along SDF-regime front lines, and perhaps reach an arrangement for the “soft-return” of the regime to certain areas now outside central government control. This approach would require Moscow to take steps to de-escalate tensions in Afrin and to take steps to end Turkish air operations (as was the case previously, when Moscow closed Syrian airspace to Turkish aircraft for 4.5 days) and to try and broker a SDF-regime agreement for a soft-return to Afrin. The US has already signaled that it does not intend to leave positions in Manbij, which would seem to preclude Turkish military action—unless, of course, the Turkish government makes the decision to risk killing American troops.
These talks would move in parallel to Geneva, where any agreements would then have to be finalized to receive UN backing. The two sides would also have to come to an agreement on the regime’s disregard of its commitments to under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the regime and Russia continue to violate with little regard for regime’s 2013 commitment to disarm. This approach would, in theory, block further Turkish military moves in Syria, but it would also decrease Moscow’s flexibility to use the Kurdish issue to frustrate US-Turkish relations. Instead, this approach would more closely associate Moscow with the SDF (without ceding the dominant US position in the northeast). This outcome would frustrate the leadership in Ankara, but at least the Turkish anger would be directed at two capitals—not just Washington.
The Syrian conflict has been raging for seven years. The external actors involved in the conflict each faces serious challenges. Russia would, presumably, like to end major combat operations and leave behind a somewhat stable Damascus. The US also needs to find an exit strategy. And Ankara will, at some point, have to realize that its means to sponsor the anti-Assad opposition will eventually run-out and that it needs to leave its positions in Syria. The three countries are at a strategic dead-end. As Turkish troops battle in Afrin, and the threat of US-Turkish escalation continues, some creative thinking is needed about how to find a way out of this mess. The US has clear interests in Syria. To realize them, Washington will have to make difficult and uncomfortable choices.
Aaron Stein is a senior resident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @aaronstein1