A fighter from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) monitors the area of Afrin along Syria’s northern border with Turkey, last June
When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to US President Donald Trump about the Syrian crisis in November, reports indicated that he thought he and Trump were more or less on the same page. After all, a couple of months before at the UN General Assembly in New York, Trump had referred to Erdogan as a “friend.”
It seems, however, that Erdogan is learning what many in the United States already know: Being a friend of Trump and expecting friendship in return is probably a mistake.
Ever since that phone call, relations between the United States and Turkey have been on a downward plunge. It was hard to see how they could get much worse after a recent trial in New York in which a former Turkish- Iranian banker accused Erdogan of secretly supporting a scheme that bypassed American sanctions on doing business with Iran.
That point may have been reached January 14 when the US-led coalition in Syria announced that it was establishing a 30,000-strong border security force in Syria composed primarily of members from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group that Turkey sees as a terrorist organisation.
The coalition said half of the force would be composed of Kurdish and Arab SDF fighters and the other half would be new recruits. Media in the region reported that training was under way for the first 230 members of the force.
This new outfit would primarily work along the Turkish and Iraqi borders and within Syria along the Euphrates River. The Euphrates is considered a barrier between most of the territory seized by the SDF from the Islamic State (ISIS) and land held by the Russia-backed Assad regime.
If Erdogan had been paying more attention in November, he might have picked up on Trump’s comment to him about “pending adjustments to the military support provided to our partners on the ground in Syria, now that the battle of Raqqa is complete.”
Erdogan reacted furiously to the coalition’s announcement.
“A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our borders,” Erdogan said. “What can that terror army target but Turkey? Our mission is to strangle it before it’s even born.”
Syrian President Bashar Assad matched Erdogan’s anger, if not his rhetoric, by calling the US plan a “blatant attack on Syrian sovereignty.” Syria has promised to drive out all vestiges of any US-supported Kurdish forces. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the creation of the border force as a direct provocation.
Turkey is planning an attack on Afrin, a Kurdish-held town in Syria just on the other side of the Turkish border. Many see this as Erdogan’s first move to remove what he sees as a Kurdish threat from the border area. This is also the place, however, where real problems could arise between Turkey and the United States.
There are 2,000 US troops serving in Syria, some stationed near Afrin, which the Trump administration has said will remain in the country until peace talks resolve the conflict. Most of the troops work with the SDF. If Turkey attacks Kurdish forces and kills American soldiers as part of any battle, it will surely escalate the already tension-filled relationship.
It seems the Turkish threat to attack Afrin had an effect. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson back-pedalled on the idea of a “border security force,” saying it was a mistake to call it that. After meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Tillerson said: “It’s unfortunate that entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed, some people misspoke,” he said. “We are not creating a border security force at all.”
Later the US military issued a statement saying: “These security forces are internally focused to prevent [ISIS] fighters from fleeing Syria. These forces will augment local security in liberated areas and protect local populations.”
Basically, it’s a semantic difference, a change in how the United States had previously described what it was doing. The question becomes is that semantic difference enough to placate the Turks?
After many decades of working together as allies, there is little chance of the Turkish-American relationship being repaired while Erdogan and Trump are in office. If relations deteriorate further, you could see the closure of the important US Air Force base in Adana and the United States would likely hit the Turkish banking system with crippling sanctions that would severely undermine the country’s economy.
It’s a scenario few want to see but one that may happen.