Turkey-US rupture ever more likely

Turkey is neither a game changer in Syria nor the one that sets the rules of the game.
Sunday 11/02/2018
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signs a drone at a military airbase in Batman, on February 3. (AP)
Risky game. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signs a drone at a military airbase in Batman, on February 3. (AP)

The plot thickens as Turkey prepares to mark the first full month of its incursion into northern Syria’s Kurdish enclave of Afrin. Perhaps it was the Turkish operation that completed the picture of a four-dimensional, open-ended war game but Syria’s reality is becoming ever more complex.

The interests of multiple actors are coming into conflict. None can claim to determine what happens next. Meanwhile, it’s safe to say the Syrian conflict suffers from a pronounced disconnect between players’ words and deeds.

Foreign policy expert Dimitar Bechev, writing for Ahval online, quoted a Human Rights Watch analyst: “If this is de-escalation, I would hate to imagine what escalation looks like.”

It’s hard to disagree. Hostilities involve at least seven different armed forces and militia groups. Fighting intensifies without warning, leading to unknown numbers of civilian casualties. Reports of them in Afrin have been so disturbing that even hard-line Turkish Army officers, such as the former Chief of General Staff Ilker Basbug, suggest the need for greater care.

The Syrian regime’s motivation is transparent — survival — but the intentions of the other actors in the Syrian theatre are not clear and Ankara’s actions are most puzzling of all.

Turkey is neither a game changer nor the one that sets the rules of the game. The incursion is limited by Russia and the United States, both on land and in the air. Then there is the further contradiction of Turkey having a foot in two camps: It is with NATO and that coalition and it is with Russia, Iran and the Astana peace process. It is a risky juggling act.

Russia has chosen to be ambiguous about the Syrian Kurds but it’s unclear if Turkey-US relations will remain resilient despite the clash of strategic interests. The tensions between Turkey and America have been apparent for some time but they escalated after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded that US forces pull out from Manbij.

What is the root cause of the deadlock, then?

For Turkey, the Afrin incursion serves a dual purpose: Erdogan can keep his country in a “state of war” and this condition may open possibilities for a politically useful extended conflict. Another goal is also crystallising.

After gaining a foothold in Afrin and parts of Idlib adjacent to the Turkish-Syrian border, Ankara said it intended to advance towards northern Iraq, targeting areas controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia. This would go up against the US strategy with respect to the northern Syrian strip along the border.

Two senior US commanders in Manbij sketched out the red lines for Erdogan’s administration. These suggest a political architecture that gives an assured place to the secular Kurdish fighters. They are meant to counter jihadist elements. For Washington, this is more important than the fate of the Assad regime.

The Americans know that it will be unwise to remove support for the Kurds, thereby abandoning the entire area to Russian and Iranian influence. Although its Syria policy is at best wobbly, the Pentagon seems to be weighing in more forcefully than before. It is visibly flexing its muscles for Ankara to see. Besides, Erdogan no longer has many friends in Washington with the US Congress rumoured to be preparing a resolution that would controversially — and infuriatingly for Turkey — recognise the killing of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 as a genocide.

Anti-Justice and Development Party (AKP) sentiment is reportedly flourishing in Washington to the extent that any escalation could attract US sanctions against Turkey, possibly for human rights abuses or corruption.

This hardening was clear in the Bipartisan Policy Centre’s report that spoke about implementing the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 measure passed by the US Congress that is considered an important development in addressing human rights abuses and corruption.

The Bipartisan Policy Centre’s report noted that “…with Turkey and the United States consistently working at cross purposes in the region, and with the risk of direct US-Turkey confrontation in Manbij, doing nothing should no longer be an option.”

A rupture seems more likely than ever before.