While the White House is distracted by internal turmoil, a crisis is brewing in Syria. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and its proxy force, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), recently invaded the city of Afrin to rid it of “terrorists,” destabilizing the de facto autonomous Kurdish region and endangering U.S. policy. Last Tuesday, in order to defend an allied Kurd-dominated militia, and in the wake of reports that Assad may once more be using chemical weapons, the U.S.-led coalition killed over 100 Syrian regime soldiers. Over the weekend, the Israeli Air Force downed an Iranian drone launched from a Syrian base, which led to a broader skirmish that brought down an Israeli F-16 and destroyed nearly half of the Syrian regime’s air defenses.
With a complex system of alliances, a major World War I-style conflict is on the horizon, one that has the potential to spread across the Middle East. With the near-demise of ISIS, buffering territory is dwindling, and thus the prospect of a conflagration is increasing. Meanwhile, the existential struggle taking place in the White House means that this Administration either cannot, or will not, give international and national security the attention it deserves.
Operation Olive Branch, Turkey’s latest offensive in Afrin, is a tangible sign of its drift from NATO and its increasing alignment with Russia. With the Kremlin’s blessing, the TSK is now battling the U.S.-led coalition’s allied Syrian ground forces. When the operation continues to Manjib, as Erdoğan repeatedly insists it will, the TSK could come face-to-face with American troops. The few hundred U.S. Special Operations soldiers stationed in Manjib have vowed that America will stay and support its allies. Given the deterioration in relations between the U.S. and Turkey, it is imaginable that for the first time, war could break out between two NATO member states.
American support for Kurdish forces is only one of several critical factors that has strained U.S.-Turkish relations. After the botched coup of 2016, Turkey purged its entire staff of NATO representatives, nearly 400 military officials. In July 2017, the Turkish state-run news organization, Anadolu, revealed the location of 10 U.S. bases in northern Syria, endangering American troops and undermining their operations. In late August 2017, Turkish-backed forces fired at U.S. troops in northern Syria. In December 2017, Turkey finalized the purchase of the S-400 missile-defense system from Russia. Ankara has also objected to NATO member-state access to key Turkish bases such as İncirlik.
These and other actions show Turkey’s increasing alignment with Russia’s anti-NATO campaign. Russia is attempting to enlist Turkey in its grander strategy of “unwinding the U.S.-led global order,” with a particular focus on disrupting NATO. The Kremlin’s campaign to win hearts and minds in Turkey, complete with anti-NATO propaganda concerning the attempted coup of 2016, appears to be working. Polls show that both anti-Americanism and pro-Russian sentiment are on the rise in Turkey.
It is still possible to salvage the relationship between Turkey and the West, and to distance Turkey from its Russian benefactor. The U.S. has leverage over Turkey, especially with respect to the Kurdish issue, as Russia is so far ignoring Erdoğan’s demand to shut out the Kurds from its own Syrian peace efforts. President Trump could simultaneously alleviate Turkish concerns while securing American interests by engaging in careful diplomacy with Turkey. Future U.S. concessions with respect to allied Kurdish ground forces in Syria should be conditioned on Turkey’s willingness to (1) halt delivery of its $2.5 billion purchase from Russia of the S-400 system; and (2) cease coordinating military drills with Russia.
If Erdoğan agrees to stipulations that distance Turkey from Russia, the U.S. should explore cooperating with the Turkish-backed FSA and decoupling the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Coordinating the deployment of FSA and Arab fighters in the SDF near the Turkish border would likely placate Erdoğan, but still leave room for the U.S. to continue supporting the YPG in areas where Turkish national security is not at risk.
Putin’s unchecked courtship of Erdoğan increases the risks associated with any military response to Assad’s war crimes, continued Turkish aggression, or Iranian entrenchment in Syria. The U.S. and NATO should take Turkey to task for any actions that are detrimental to NATO’s mutual defense goals. Concurrently, Turkey must be lured away from Russia before it is too late. The delicate carrot-and-stick balance that must be struck with Turkey to solidify its fidelity to NATO interests requires highly-skilled diplomacy. The ineptitude of the current Administration means Congress must take the lead. It must do so immediately, lest we end up in an international armed conflict that we are ill-equipped to handle.
The authors explore these developments more deeply in Turkey’s Eastern Pivot: A Challenge for NATO and a Threat to U.S. National Security, published in January by the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania.