Washington or Moscow: Decision-Time for Erdogan in Northern Syria

Tulin Daloglu
https://media.thecradle.co/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/15211047/Unknown-2-4.jpegErdogan’s Syria choices seem increasingly limited by unflagging US support for his Kurdish foes. Turkey’s only option may be a Russian one. Photo Credit: The Cradle

Continued US support for Kurdish militants is taking its toll on US-Turkish relations. Turkey’s President Erdogan may finally have to choose between an American or Russian direction for his country.

In his 7 October statement renewing US national emergency powers in Syria, US President Joe Biden said: “The situation in and in relation to Syria, and in particular the actions by the Government of Turkey to conduct a military offensive into northeast Syria, undermines the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, endangers civilians, and further threatens to undermine the peace, security, and stability in the region, and continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

The full statement obviously has several intended audiences, but then quite remarkably, veers to cast Turkey, a NATO ally, almost as an existential threat to the United States. Ankara understands that the exaggerated accusation may be a tactic to keep Turkey from carrying out military operations east of Euphrates River, currently controlled by US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) militias.

But whether Turkey aims to make this move is beside the point. What this harsh White House language seems to be communicating is a US red line whereby the Kurdish-controlled area in northeastern Syria is regarded as a federal district – as in Washington, DC or Puerto Rico. That is the crux of all that matters.

For years, US policymakers regarded Turkish misgivings over this issue as either paranoiac or conspiratorial. When Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) signed a multi-billion-dollar energy package in 2013 by bypassing the central government in Baghdad, it was Washington that warned Ankara that such acts could only empower the Kurds’ drive for independence. To note, these contracts eventually did not yield any favorable results.

Fast forward to 2017, when Washington tamped down the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum quickly and decisively. The move made Ankara temporarily cool its concerns over the US’ stance on Kurdish nationhood, but found itself on alert again when the Pentagon began working closely with the YPG militia in Syria.

Turkey argues that the YPG is an extension of a group the US State Department classifies as a terrorist organization: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The US maintains that its support of the YPG does not indicate hostility toward Turkey, its territorial integrity or national harmony; it merely needs non-US bodies on the ground to fight ISIS and, frankly, Syrian allied forces attempting to recover their resource-rich swathe of territory.

For years now, the American media has glorified the bravery of Kurdish fighters to generate sympathy, and cast Turkey as a racist state prepared to commit cross-border genocide against Kurdish populations. This simplistic approach in shaping people’s perception is one aspect of Washington’s policy agenda. The other part frames the US-YPG relationship as being merely transactional – the YPG maximizes its political and military power and the US scores gains against ISIS and the Syrian government.

The question is whether US-backed Kurdish forces are even an antidote to ISIS. Former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford doesn’t think so. “The YPG militia cannot destroy ISIS,” he said in a recent webinar event. “An autonomous (Kurdish) administration is not going to resolve the ISIS problem.”

So then, why does Biden’s administration believe that Turkey undermines US counter-terrorism efforts enough to pose a national security threat? If one examines Washington’s own post-9/11 foreign policy track record in Turkey’s neighborhood, there’s vitually nothing resembling “peace, security, and stability in the region.”

Is Turkey single-handedly responsible for these American failures? No. Could the Kurdish militia pose a threat to Turkey’s national unity and peace? Yes. Does the YPG have a right under international law to defend itself? Let’s get honest here – these NATO allies no longer trust each other enough to look away. And frankly, neither Turkey, nor the US, nor the YPG have the right to invoke international law in their fights against each other inside Syrian territory.

The US-Turkey relationship has never been an easy one due to Ankara’s poor record of human rights and rule of law, and its 1974 Cyprus intervention. These differences have grown in recent years, and include Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 program, its exposure to CAATSA sanctions, bitter fights over its acquisition of Russian S-400 anti-missile systems, and so forth. But no issue today is of more concern to the Turks than the Kurdish one, and Washington doesn’t want to hear it.

When then-Vice President Biden visited Ankara on August 24, 2016, Turkey launched its Operation Euphrates Shield in northeastern Syria. Whether Biden received prior notice remains a mystery; it was the first high-level US visit to Turkey after the failed 15 July putsch by the Turkish-banned Fethullah Gulen movement (Gulen enjoys asylum in the United States), and perhaps Ankara was feeling vindictive.

“We couldn’t understand if it was an internet game, if it was serious, when it happened,” Biden has said. The again, he also assured Turkey that the US would extradite Gulen if the evidence warranted a trial, and that it would cut support to the YPG if they did not withdraw to the east of the Euphrates river.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet with Biden on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Rome later this month, but the way Washington is ignoring him after years of support is making him restless. The inner ranks of the Ankara beltway are still reeling from the speed at which Turkey went from downing a Russian fighter jet for its 8-second incursion into Turkish air space, to purchasing S-400s from Russia the next day.

Given Ankara’s chaotic past decade, nothing is taken at face value anymore. But the US is also no longer perceived as a respectful partner in building democracy and human rights. Today, it is regarded more as a cold-blooded, interest-driven power broker, with little loyalty. While Russia, China and Iran are also viewed as sanguine players, they at least appear to respect their alliances.

Neither of these rising regional powers can single-handedly shape the world order in the way the Americans have done for decades. But, together, they are jockeying to exert influence and maximize their benefits in the wake of Washington’s error-filled, foreign policy decline in influence. The more the US sidelines the interests of its NATO ally in favor of Kurdish militias, the more tectonic opportunities arise for Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran’s benefit.

Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met privately for almost three hours in Sochi on 29 September. It is in Putin’s interest to exploit or magnify US-Turkish differences to wrench Turkey away from its Western alliance, where anti-Erdoganism creates unprecedented opportunities for Russia. For years, Washington supported Erdogan in power; now Moscow is playing the same game.

The YPG recently killed two Turkish special operations police officers in northern Syria. Since then both Erdogan and Turkey’s Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar have spoken cautiously about their next step. On Friday, the Turkish president promised a “different” kind of anti-terror response in Syria, and took a swipe at the Americans: “The terrorists of the PKK, YPG and PYD are running wild in entire Syria, not only in the northern part. The leading supporters of them are the international coalition and the US,” he said.

It is unclear what Erdogan intends to do next. It could be a limited operation targeting only the Tel Rifaat area – which is under the supervision of the Russians, who have promised to clear out YPG militia. But Moscow will want something in exchange – likely, the complete removal of Turkish-backed militants in Idlib.

However, if Erdogan and Putin reached a comprehensive agreement in their latest bilateral meeting, Turkey could also aim for the area (30 kilometers deep, from Manbij to al-Malikiyah) of Operation Peace Spring, which Biden would fiercely oppose. Or it could do nothing at all. For Ankara, these are not easy times to make hard decisions.

One direction will leave Erdogan stuck with uneasy allies who militarily support his most belligerent foes. The other direction will see him abandoning all hope of territorial gains in the Levant, highlight his decade-long failed investment in Syrian regime-change, and place him firmly back within Turkey’s borders.

President Biden has either misread the tea leaves in the region or actively wants Moscow to exert even more influence over Ankara. Either way, Erdogan may find himself outmatched in the duel between Moscow and Washington. The end game could be a new West Asian order.