The United States is rapidly approaching the limits of its balancing act between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Syria. Soon, the Trump administration will have to make a hard choice between its Nato ally and its anti-ISIS Kurdish partners on the ground. The obvious reason for the looming denouement is Turkey’s increasingly aggressive military forays against Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria. In the eyes of Ankara, Syrian Kurds have goals that go well beyond the defeat of ISIS: they are fighting for self-rule and political hegemony. Ankara is making it clear that it will not tolerate such Kurdish aspirations in northern Syria, and appears ready to launch a major offensive that will put at risk the lives of American soldiers embedded with Kurdish fighters.
Previous Turkish military incursions targeted Kurdish enclaves like Afrin in northwest Syria, where American forces were absent. This time, Turkish artillery is pounding the northeast, near Manbij, where US special forces are deployed with Kurdish counterparts. By pursuing this aggressive strategy, Ankara hopes Washington will end its military partnership with Syrian Kurds.
The US strategy in Syria is essentially twofold: containment of Iran and a lasting defeat of ISIS. Facilitating a political transition in Damascus remains a third – and increasingly unrealistic – goal for Washington, for obvious reasons. The Assad regime has consolidated its hold over most of Syria, thanks to Russian and Iranian military support. The problem for Washington is that it wants to achieve its first two objectives on the cheap. After the never-ending war in Afghanistan and the fiasco in Iraq, there is no appetite in Washington for another military adventure in the Middle East. As a result, the superpower is at the mercy of its regional partners. This means dependence on Syrian Kurds in the fight against ISIL and dependence on Turkey for the use Incirlik, an American airbase located very close to the Syrian border.
America’s reliance on Turkey and Syrian Kurds would be a more effective strategy if the two were willing to work together. This is clearly not the case. To be sure, Turkey is not categorically opposed to collaborating with neighboring Kurds. After all, Ankara enjoys good relations with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, in whose territory Turkish companies are the main investors. But the Turkish government considers the Syrian Kurds as an extension of a Kurdish terrorist organization that has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey since 1984. In the eyes of Ankara, there is no daylight between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. The US has long recognized the PKK as a terrorist group, but considers the YPG to be a separate entity on the grounds that it has never targeted Turkey.
US logistical support for Syrian Kurds began as early as in 2014 and turned into a full-blown military partnership with embedded American special operation forces in 2016. In an attempt to legitimize its military partnership with Syrian Kurds in the eyes of Ankara, the Pentagon put together a coalition of Kurdish and Arab opposition groups under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) umbrella. Predictably, Turkey was not impressed. Like the rest of the world, Ankara knows that the SDF is dominated by the YPG and that the Arab presence in the organization is purely cosmetic.
Geographically, the center of gravity of the Kurdish-American military cooperation is northeastern Syria. To stop the formation of a Kurdish belt in the whole of northern Syria, Turkey sees the Euphrates as a redline and wants the YPG confined to the east of the river. Turkish-American military relations hit a major low in 2016, when SDF forces crossed to the west of the Euphrates and established a presence in Manbij, despite American assurances to Ankara that this would not be allowed to happen. In retaliation, the Turkish military established its presence in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin after a major cross-border operation in northwest Syria. Soon after the Turkish army and its allied Arab militias took control of Afrin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, began work on a plan to do the same east of the Euphrates.
Today, with the Turkish economy showing serious stress, Erdogan is more than willing to play the nationalist card against the Kurds in northeastern Syria. Earlier this month, the military started firing artillery rounds at YPG positions perilously close to where American forces are situated. Such action forced Washington to take seriously Turkish statements about a planned ground operation into northeast Syria. This puts the Pentagon in a bind.
Ironically, recent Turkish artillery attacks came shortly after Washington agreed to joint US-Turkish patrols in Manbij as a compromise. The US appears to have reached the limits of its high-wire balancing act: organizing patrols with Turkish troops in Manbij west of the Euphrates, while cooperating with the PKK-affiliated YPG to the east.
The White House, as usual, is in crisis-management mode and last week’s decision to placate Turkey with a $12 million bounty for PKK leaders Murat Karayilan, Cemil Bayik and Duran Kalkan should be read in this context. But decision time is fast approaching. Soon, the US will have to pick between Turkey and the YPG. A reasoned decision based on larger geostrategic stakes would favor Turkey. But American commanders on the ground and military strategists in Washington need the Kurds in the fight against ISIS. The ideal scenario for the US is to convince Turkey to play a larger role against ISIS without sacrificing Syrian Kurds. But this is easier said than done.
Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.