By Elizabeth Teoman and Ethan Beaudoin
Key Takeaway: The U.S. should start to reorient its long-term relationship with Turkey during the upcoming meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Erdogan on May 16. The U.S. and Turkey suffer from a deep strategic divergence that goes far beyond operational disagreements over the offensive against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City. The U.S. must instead prioritize its remaining leverage on efforts to halt and reverse this mounting divide and reenlist Turkey as a legitimate NATO ally against the threats posed by Salafi-Jihadist Groups and the Russo-Iranian Coalition.
The current friction between the U.S. and Turkey extends beyond operational disagreements over the anti-ISIS operation in Ar-Raqqa City. Turkey’s strategic objectives diverge from those of the U.S. in key ways. Turkish President Recep Erdogan ultimately seeks to reassert Turkey’s status as a regional power throughout the sphere of influence of the former Ottoman Empire. Erdogan promotes the spread of Islamism across the Middle East and North Africa as a means to create governments responsive to him and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). His aspirations drive an independent regional policy that eschews traditional partnerships with the U.S. and Europe. He also leverages tools of the state to consolidate his increasingly authoritarian rule at home. These objectives - and the manner in which he pursues them – undermine the strategic goals of the U.S. in the Middle East and Europe. Erdogan’s distinct brand of ‘Neo-Ottomanism’ leads him to support Salafi-Jihadist Groups such as Ahrar al-Sham that serve as a vector for al Qaeda. His embrace of populist nationalism fuels an active conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is waging an insurgency in Turkey. The PKK’s Syrian branch – the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) – is the primary anti-ISIS ground force partner for the United States. Erdogan’s attempts to forge an independent foreign policy prompt him to pursue superficial yet deepening ties with Russia and Iran.
The U.S.’s myopic focus on the campaign against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City has ignored – and often exacerbated - the growing strategic divergence with Turkey. U.S. President Donald Trump has doubled-down on his predecessor’s preference for an offensive against Ar-Raqqa City led by the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The president authorized the U.S. Department of Defense on May 8 to provide direct material support, including weapons and ammunition, to the YPG despite the long-standing objections of Turkey. This decision subordinates long-term regional stability to short-term military expediency. It increases the risk that the U.S. will fail to secure its objectives because any near-term gains against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City will likely prove ephemeral. The YPG-led SDF will ultimately struggle to provide a political alternative acceptable to a Sunni Arab majority population that will not submit to the YPG’s vision even when it is implemented by other Sunni Arabs. This outcome will create an environment permissive for Salafi-Jihadist groups, including ISIS and al Qaeda. The decision also increases the risk that Turkey will launch cross-border operations targeting the YPG in Northern Syria, particularly against the town of Tel Abyad in Northern Ar-Raqqa Province. The U.S. may attempt to prevent this move - including with new military deployments along the border as well as expanded intelligence sharing against the PKK – but such responses will fail to address Turkey’s fundamental concerns. These efforts also risk expending sources of available leverage that the U.S. could instead use to drive a strategic realignment with Turkey on key issues such as the threats of al Qaeda, the Russo-Iranian coalition, and the wider Turkish-Kurdish War.
The U.S. should act to prevent Turkey from being drawn further into the Russo-Iranian orbit in Syria. Turkey’s cooperation with Russia and Iran is transactional and contingent upon Erdogan’s perceived foreign policy gains. Turkey circumvents the European Union-regulated Southern Gas Corridor through Russian-backed TurkStream in order to transport gas supplies to southern Europe. Turkey also signaled its intent to purchase the S-400 air defense system from Russia as an allegedly more affordable option to NATO member states’ defense systems. Turkey participates in the Russian-led Astana talks as a guarantor in order to legitimize itself as a key actor in the Syrian theater. The December 2016 “cessation of hostilities” deal and the recent announcement of “de-escalation zones” support this effort by reinforcing Turkey’s de facto zones of control in Idlib Province and territorial control seized in Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield.
The U.S. needs to sever the link between Turkey and Salafi-Jihadist groups. Turkey channels its support for anti-regime operations through al Qaeda-aligned opposition groups. Turkey notably supported the “Jaysh al Fatah Operations Room” led by al Qaeda in Syria to seize the city of Idlib in 2015. Turkey included Ahrar al Sham – a Salafi-Jihadist group allied with al Qaeda – in its Operation Euphrates Shield. Turkey also tolerated ISIS’s territorial control along its southern border as an acceptable YPG deterrent. This outreach empowered irreconcilable actors on the ground at the expensive of acceptable opposition groups, blocking any prospect of a legitimate negotiated settlement to the Syrian Civil War. This empowerment also ensures continued safe haven for ISIS, al Qaeda, and other Salafi-Jihadist groups that threaten the U.S. and Europe. The U.S. thus cannot allow Turkey to unilaterally shape governance in Ar-Raqqa City or Northern Syria. The U.S. must over time persuade Turkish leaders that backing al Qaeda linked groups actually threatens Turkey’s interest. Turkey’s backing of al Qaeda-aligned groups exacerbates the risk of domestic terrorism in Turkey, elevates the terror threat to NATO member countries, and even competes with Erdogan’s own quasi-imperial vision of the Middle East.
The U.S. should seek to capitalize on points of short-term cooperation and set conditions to shape a long-term strategic convergence with Turkey against Russia, Iran, and Salafi-Jihadist groups. The U.S. and Turkey still share fundamental strategic objectives and short-term interests. The announced de-escalation zones in Syria benefit the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Russo-Iranian coalition more than advance Turkey’s interests. Both the U.S. and Turkey need to block the expansion of Russian and Iranian military presence in Syria. This deal will enable pro-Assad regime forces to regroup and reset for offensive operations in central and southern Syria, far from Turkey’s area of interest. Turkey is not likely to cede areas of opposition control to fully implement the agreement. The U.S. and Turkey can also cooperate on counter-terrorism operations inside Turkey.
The U.S. still retains multiple sources of leverage over Turkey outside of Syria. The coordinated use of these levers can support a strategy to bring Turkey back into alignment with the United States. The U.S. can begin to roll back Turkey’s support for Salafi-Jihadist groups by addressing Turkey’s concerns over the YPG’s growing influence in northern Syria and taking tangible steps to pressure the Assad regime. The U.S. can assuage Turkish fears of PKK expansion by supporting operations to remove the PKK from Sinjar, Iraq. Expanding economic aid could supplement Turkey's capacity to rebuild northern Syria. Enhanced U.S. military and intelligence cooperation through NATO can bolster the weakened, post-restructuring Turkish Armed Forces that face a growing Russian-Iranian military footprint, provided that Erdogan curbs his post-coup authoritarian crackdown. The U.S. also has a range of counter-terrorism sanctions measures it can use to address the threat posed by al Qaeda-linked networks in Turkey. The U.S. can also pressure Turkey over human rights violations during Erdogan’s crackdown on domestic dissent.
The U.S. needs a broader strategic outlook on cooperation with Turkey. Turkey is an ally rapidly drifting away from the U.S. and Europe. Focusing exclusively or primarily on near-term anti-ISIS gains in Syria will put long-term U.S. strategic interests at grave risk. The Trump Administration must reframe the terms of engagement with Erdogan or risk losing an important NATO partner in Turkey. A Turkey that acts like a NATO ally can be an effective part of a U.S. strategy to destroy Salafi-Jihadist groups and roll back the influence of the Russo-Iranian coalition.