US Damage Control and Crisis Management with Turkey Does Not Amount to a Strategy in Syria

Ömer Taşpınar

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s much anticipated visit to Ankara last week seems to have achieved its modest mission of averting a military confrontation between the two countries. The fact that preventing a war between two Nato allies in northern Syria has become a measure of success in Turkish-American relations speaks volumes about what is left from what was once hailed a “model strategic partnership.”

After a dinner on Thursday with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that lasted three and a half hours and another long meeting the next day at the ministry of foreign affairs, Tillerson declared at a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart that two countries had agreed on a joint plan for tackling Turkish concerns about the presence of Kurdish forces in northern Syria, as well as US priorities on tackling ISIS jihadis. “We are not going to act alone any longer,” he said. “We are going to work together from this point forward. We are going to lock arms.”

If you scratch the surface of such declarations of solidarity, however, it remains unclear how the two countries with increasingly diverging interests will work together. At the press conference, when the Turkish foreign minister said that the US promised to get the YPG Kurdish militia forces out of the town of Manbij (which the Turks threaten to invade once they are done with the town of Afrin), Tillerson was noncommittal. He instead pointed out that a working group will be formed to prioritize key issues between the two countries.

As Churchill once said, “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” However, as most foreign-policy practitioners would attest, working groups seldom produce breakthroughs. They are preferred mechanisms for damage control and crisis management when urgent matters cannot be solved at the leadership level. Therefore, it would be very naive to expect miracles from bureaucratic dialogue when there are insurmountable strategic differences in the way two nations define their national interests and threat perceptions.

It is time to recognize that Turkey and the United States have reached the end of their glory days of strategic partnership. Since the end of the Cold War, Ankara and Washington no longer share the same enemies and threat perceptions. Terrorism, on paper, is a good candidate, but it is also a very poor and amorphous substitute for the Soviet Union. For Americans, jihadi terrorism represented by the likes of Al Qaeda and ISIS is paramount. For Turkey, terrorism with Kurdish ethnic roots is the main existential threat. The reason why Syria has turned into such a nightmare is because it made the management of this Turkish-American divergence impossible with the face-off between Kurdish nationalists and ISIS. It is one thing to disagree on threat perception, but for Turkey, when your Nato partner teams up with your Kurdish terrorist threat to fight what it considers the “real” terrorists, the situation is no longer sustainable. America’s military support for Syrian Kurds qualifies the United States as a state-sponsor of terrorism in the eyes of Ankara.

Washington still wants to convince Ankara that the YPG is not a terrorist threat to Turkey. For Turkey, however, there is no daylight between the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group active in Turkey, and the YPG. The US recognizes the PKK as a terrorist organization but considers the YPG a separate entity. It certainly helps that the YPG happens to be the most effective Syrian fighting force against ISIS. Simply put, it is thanks to the YPG that large swaths of Syrian territory – including Raqqa – have been liberated from ISIS. What makes the issue of terrorism even more complicated in Turkish-American relations is the fact that Ankara tacitly considers most of Al Qaeda-linked jihadi groups in Syria as freedom fighters who have taken arms against the bloody regime of Bashar Al Assad. To be sure, Turkey considers ISIS a terrorist group, but Ankara clearly favored a YPG defeat to ISIS as the preferred outcome in northern Syria. There is a tendency among pro-Erdogan circles in Turkey to see jihadi terrorism in Syria as a temporary phenomenon that will vanish once a Muslim Brotherhood-type government comes to power in Damascus.

So where does all this mess will lead? Much will depend on the exact scope of the Turkish military campaign in northern Syria and on Washington’s ability to walk a tight rope between its Nato partner and its Kurdish allies on the ground. Unlike Afrin, where Turkey is currently engaged and where Russia had influence, Manbij and Rojava are enclaves used by the US to equip and train the YPG for the fight against ISIS. More than 2,000 American military personnel and special forces are stationed in the region.

The Syrian Kurds are rightly concerned that their American friends have forged only a tactical and temporary alliance with them – a marriage of convenience that will end in favor of America’s Nato partner once ISIS is firmly rooted out from Syria. Yet Syrian Kurds should be heartened by the absence of a common strategic vision in Turkish-American relations. After all, there is no shortage of major problems on the bilateral agenda. Turkey’s decision to buy missile-defense systems from Russia is clearly testing Nato’s tolerance and patience. American financial sanctions for Turkish banks involved in sanction-busting with Iran are around the corner. And the US Congress is considering further sanctions against Turkey for violating human rights and arresting American citizens in Turkey as hostages for the extradition of the US-based Turkish cleric, Fetullah Gulen.

In short, the Kurds may soon be delighted to discover that Turkey has become more of a strategic problem for Washington than a strategic partner.

Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington, DC.