Longstanding US-Turkish alliance could break under Syrian strain

Washington and Ankara have long been at odds over northern Syria.
Sunday 04/02/2018
Turkey’s Chief of General Staff General Hulusi Akar (L) arrives to discuss the Operation Olive Branch in Afrin at Turkey’s  General Staff Headquarters in Ankara, on January 20.  (Turkish Armed Forces)
Tipping point. Turkey’s Chief of General Staff General Hulusi Akar (L) arrives to discuss the Operation Olive Branch in Afrin at Turkey’s General Staff Headquarters in Ankara, on January 20. (Turkish Armed Forces)

WASHINGTON - The longstanding alliance between the United States and Turkey could collapse under the strain of an escalating crisis in Syria, as a direct military confrontation between the two NATO partners can no longer be ruled out, analysts said.

“If one side kills a soldier on the other, then there will be a genuine crisis,” W. Robert Pearson, a former US ambassador to Turkey, said regarding tensions between the two countries in northern Syria.

A Turkish military intervention against a Kurdish militia closely allied with the United States in the fight against the Islamic State near the Syrian city of Afrin raised the spectre of clashes between Turkish and US troops further east in Manbij. It is the city that Ankara is apparently targeting next.

Washington and Ankara have long been at odds over northern Syria because of US support for the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that is seen as a terrorist group by Turkey.

Both governments have tried to keep the issue from poisoning overall relations but the Turkish incursion into the Afrin area that started on January 20 could become a tipping point. A serious rift between Turkey and the United States could plunge NATO into crisis and push Ankara further away from the West. It also allows for increased Russian influence in the region.

For decades, US-Turkish ties were shaped by a close military partnership and joint political positions such as a staunch anti-communist stance during the Cold War. Relations took a first serious hit in 2003 when Turkey refused to grant Washington permission to attack Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from Turkish territory. The latest spat, however, is unprecedented. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused the Americans of protecting a “gang of killers” in Syria and pro-government media in Turkey describe the United States as an “enemy” of their country.

Abdulkadir Selvi, a well-connected columnist for the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper, said Erdogan told US President Donald Trump in a phone call on January 24 that Turkey’s troops would march from Afrin to Manbij, a city taken by the YPG with US help last year. When Trump replied that there were US forces in Manbij, Erdogan told the US president to withdraw them, stated Selvi’s account, which has not been disputed by Ankara.

The call triggered another round of accusations between Washington and Ankara when the Erdogan government denied a White House statement saying Trump urged Turkey “to exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.”

US Army General Joseph Votel, commander of the US Central Command, has said America has no intention of withdrawing its troops from Manbij. Representatives of Syria’s Kurds are calling on the United States, which has deployed about 2,000 soldiers in northern Syria, to do more to stop Turkey’s intervention in the region.

The United States is reading the escalation over Afrin and Manbij as a consequence of Erdogan’s domestic agenda a year before key elections in Turkey, as the military intervention in Syria could motivate nationalist voters to support the president.

“There is room for pulling back from confrontation, even for cooperating,” Pearson wrote via e-mail. “But if [President] Erdogan is more interested in building domestic support than in finding a solution both the US and Turkey can live with, the risk of a clash arises.”

Turkey’s military operation in Afrin is not the only reason that finding a way out of the confrontation is difficult. Washington has announced a new Syria strategy that includes a permanent US military presence in the country and the creation of a Kurdish-dominated force of 30,000 fighters to control areas captured from ISIS. Even a US withdrawal from Manbij would not calm Turkey’s more general concerns over the YPG.

Some observers said the row indicates a more fundamental chasm. “It is hard to imagine a scenario in which Erdogan’s Turkey continues in its current trajectory and bilateral relations between Washington and Ankara remain unchanged,” said Tally Helfont, director of the Programme on the Middle East at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

US alliances, “despite all the hyperbole about friendship,” were based on such factors as shared objectives and threat perceptions, she wrote in an e-mail.

“When a key ally like Turkey not only takes such a steep autocratic turn but has also an increasing number of objectives that are at cross purposes with the United States, it should cause Washington to rethink its relationship with Ankara or at least explore how it may facilitate bringing Ankara back into the fold,” Helfont added.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington think-tank, wrote on Twitter that US-Turkish ties had passed a point of no return.

“A break with Erdogan’s Turkey is inevitable, if not over this than over other differences,” Haass said. The United States should cooperate with the Kurds in Syria “for moral and strategic reasons alike” while the Pentagon should look for alternatives to military bases used by the US in Turkey.

Outside the Syrian war, relations are plagued by other problems as well. Turkey has voiced frustration over Washington’s reluctance to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Muslim cleric accused by Ankara of being the mastermind of a coup attempt against Erdogan in 2016. The US administration is protesting detention of a US priest and employees of US consulates in Turkey. Last year’s involvement of Erdogan’s bodyguards in a brawl in Washington during a visit by the Turkish president to the United States further soured the mood among US politicians against Turkey.