The war in Ukraine has forced Washington to recalibrate its priorities when it comes to its relationship with Ankara.
By: Connor Echols
Two weeks ago, a massive explosion rocked a busy road in Istanbul, killing six people and wounding more than 80. Within hours, Turkish authorities blamed the deadly attack on the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish group that has worked closely with the United States in the fight against ISIS.
Turkey’s response has been emphatic. After accusing Washington of being complicit in the attack, Ankara has carried out a series of air raids against Kurdish military targets in Iraq and northern Syria, some of which are also occupied by American soldiers.
It looks like those strikes are just the beginning. Turkish leaders are now suggesting that a ground invasion is imminent, a move that would expand hostilities in northeastern Syria to a level not seen since the U.S., YPG, and their allies beat back the majority of ISIS forces in the region. And reports indicate that Washington has recently brought a number of soldiers across the border from Iraq into Syria, meaning that U.S. troops could be caught in the crossfire.
For American policymakers, this situation poses some serious problems.
Washington’s support for the YPG has long been a thorn in the side of Ankara, which claims that the militia is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). While the two NATO allies consider the PKK to be a terrorist organization, the U.S. maintains that the YPG is a separate group with its own interests.
This difference in views is at least partly a practical move by the United States, which has leaned heavily on the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces to push back ISIS. As National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby recently lamented, a Turkish offensive would “limit and constrain” the SDF’s anti-Islamic State operations. “And we want to be able to keep the pressure on ISIS,” Kirby added.
“The United States did not approve Turkey’s recent strikes in Syria,” said a State Department spokesperson in a statement to Responsible Statecraft, adding that the U.S. “urges all parties to immediately de-escalate” the fighting. “We continue to oppose any military action that destabilizes the situation in Syria.”
Despite these strong words, the war in Ukraine has forced Washington to recalibrate its priorities, as Giorgio Cafiero of Gulf State Analytics told Responsible Statecraft.
“The Biden administration sees Turkey as a very important ally vis-à-vis the conflict in Ukraine,” Cafiero said, noting Ankara’s key role in providing weapons to Kyiv and moderating talks between the warring parties. “The White House is not interested in aggravating Turkey right now.”
So Washington will likely avoid using its significant leverage over Ankara — including a pending deal that would enable Turkey to buy a fleet of 50 new F-16s — to try to prevent an offensive in Syria. Instead, U.S. leaders will continue to call on both Kurdish and Turkish fighters to deescalate.
In some ways, this marks an acceptance of a fait accompli. Turkish officials are the only ones who have concluded that the YPG was behind the Istanbul attack. (A State Department spokesperson said the U.S. “cannot confirm Turkey’s claims that the PKK was responsible.”) But, to a certain extent, that doesn’t matter. Turkey has long viewed the Kurdish militant presence in Syria as a top national security threat, and leaders in Ankara had already been floating the idea of a new ground offensive in the months before the bombing.
On top of all that, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces a difficult election next June, and failing to respond decisively to an attack in Turkey would be a significant liability for the already embattled president. As Turkey expert Sibel Oktay recently argued, “electoral defeat is a very likely outcome for Erdogan.”
“Turkey doesn’t take orders from others; we are a key actor in the region and the makers of our own foreign policy’ is a powerful and compelling message that attracts voters from every corner of Turkish society,” Oktay wrote.
The situation in northeast Syria is also vital to another hot-button electoral issue: Syrian refugees. As Turkey’s economic crisis continues to worsen, many voters have grown resentful toward the several million displaced Syrians that Ankara has welcomed since 2011.
While the situation in much of Syria remains too dangerous for refugees to return, Erdogan has suggested the creation of a “safe corridor” in the country’s northeast where they could be repatriated. For Ankara, this means getting rid of the YPG presence in the region, which would give Turkish officials the added benefit of creating a buffer zone between Turkey and its Kurdish foes.
Meanwhile, Russia has also reportedly tried to dissuade Turkey from a full-scale offensive in Syria. After initially calling for a limited incursion, Moscow is now asking the YPG to hand over control of a buffer zone to the government in Damascus, which is led by Russia ally Bashar al-Assad. News reports indicate that YPG cadres are divided on whether to take the deal, with some still holding out hope that the United States will find a way to prevent a Turkish attack.
And the YPG isn’t alone in considering a shift in its policy toward Damascus. In a press conference last week, Erdogan said he would be open to meeting with Assad despite the fact that Turkey has helped lead the fight against the Syrian regime since 2011.