The United States and the Turkish-Kurdish Conundrum in Northern Syria


Turkish Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin and US National Security Advisor John Bolton during their recent meeting in Ankara.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s refusal to meet with US National Security Advisor John Bolton has become the latest episode of what are now periodic US-Turkey tensions over the Syrian Kurds. Erdoğan declared that he would not “accept or swallow” Bolton’s earlier comments that Turkey should provide security guarantees for Syrian Kurds as a precondition for US troops’ withdrawal from northern Syria. This has obviously become unsure as the withdrawal of these troops has actually begun. The “non-paper” that Bolton delivered to the Turkish presidential office included the statement that “the United States opposes any mistreatment of opposition forces who fought with us against ISIS.” It was signed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, and the United States Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS James Jeffrey.

Bolton also told Erdoğan’s spokesperson that the New York Times op-ed penned by the Turkish president was “wrong and offensive.” In his piece, Erdoğan argued that Turkey is the best regional actor to form the local governing bodies in northern Syria, which will include Kurdish representatives who have no affiliation with the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Erdoğan’s later speech hinted at America’s deep state influence, which was most explicitly elaborated by the editorial of the Turkish government’s mouthpiece, Daily Sabah, entitled “A soft coup against Donald Trump.”

US-Turkey tensions over northern Syria are likely to endure unless two critical Turkish demands are met: (1) the United States gives a green light for a Turkish-controlled buffer zone in the eastern Euphrates, and (2) the Pentagon retrieves its arms and military equipment from the YPG. While the first demand may garner Washington’s approval with some reservations, the second is a hard issue to resolve as US officials have repeatedly committed to ensure that Turkey does not “slaughter the Kurds.” The future of US-Turkey relations will also be highly dependent on Ankara-Moscow deals over Syrian Kurds and the future of Idlib.

Turkey Seeks a Buffer Zone

Starting from the Tal Abyad and Kobane regions, Turkey aims to establish an extended buffer zone in the eastern Euphrates. According to Turkish officials, the buffer zone should be “deep enough” to protect Turkish borders from YPG forces, which are projected to be pushed to southern Hasaka where Arab residents outnumber Kurds. Ankara promotes the Jarablus model as a blueprint for its projected influence in the eastern Euphrates. In Jarablus, Turkey supported the formation of a local Syrian council that governs the city, which had a swelling population from around 5,000 people during Islamic State control to 140,000 in 2018. Current Jarablus residents include the refugees returning from Turkey as well as internally displaced Syrians.

Ankara, however, understands that the eastern Euphrates terrain is not easy to rule in the long term, compared to Jarablus, where Turkey struggles to address the problem of the security structure. Turkish officials blamed Kurdish fighters for the bombings in Jarablus and residents worry about rogue rebel groups. Turkey’s challenges in eastern Euphrates may be comparable to the Afrin region, where the lack of a local Arab majority makes Turkish stabilization efforts that follow its military incursion most difficult.

Turkey’s challenges in eastern Euphrates may be comparable to the Afrin region, where the lack of a local Arab majority makes Turkish stabilization efforts that follow its military incursion most difficult.

Washington’s approach to the demand of a Turkish buffer zone may be positive, using a reformulation of the plan by former Secretary of Defense James Mattis of November 2018. Before the critical meeting between Trump and Erdoğan about the US troop withdrawal, Mattis ordered the establishment of US observation posts in northern Syria with a dual purpose: first, to track any threat to Turkey, thus providing intelligence to Turkish officials for border protection; and second, to protect Washington’s Kurdish allies against potential Turkish military offensives. On January 9, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statements affirmed such a dual policy—cooperating with Turkey against “terrorist” threats while defending the security of the Syrian Kurds. A buffer zone agreement with Turkey—conditioned by strong US reservations to protect Kurds—may actually stop a deadly armed conflict. The devil, however, is in the details. Conditions of the agreement will be most arduous to pin down and Turkey’s willingness to give concessions will be very much determined by the Ankara-Moscow deal over the Syrian Kurds.

The Trump Administration’s appointment of James Jeffrey—who served in Turkey as US ambassador during 2008-2010—as US Special Representative for Syria Engagement has increased Ankara’s hopes of receiving a green light for the buffer zone. In the past few years, Jeffrey has been one of the most ardent supporters of Turkey in DC circles, constantly defending and having to “oversell” Turkey in Washington. Most recently, Jeffrey replaced Brett McGurk as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, which was met with delight in Ankara. Turkey had perceived McGurk as a key architect of the US-YPG alliance, publicly calling on Washington to sack him for the last two years. In Turkish state media channels, McGurk’s persona was compared to Lawrence of Arabia, who mobilized Arab forces against the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Further, a public prosecutor petitioned a Turkish court to arrest McGurk on terrorism charges. Thus for Ankara, McGurk’s resignation to protest Trump’s Syria withdrawal decision is truly a turning point that will encourage more forceful demands from Turkey in the future.

Will Trump Support the Pentagon’s Policy of Arming the Kurds?

During General Joseph Dunford’s recent visit to Ankara, the Turkish military reiterated its demand for US action to disarm the Syrian Kurds. The Turkish government has long complained about the Pentagon’s arming of the YPG, and in return, American officials have tried to assuage Ankara’s concerns that these weapons were solely for the war on the Islamic State and would never be used against Turkey—as requirements had been made to ensure that Kurds would return them to US control after the mission. In November 2017, Trump’s announcement to cut the supply of arms to Kurdish fighters pleased Turkey; however, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement that the United States had “never given heavy arms to the YPG so there is none to take back” raised questions in Ankara.

In November 2017, Trump’s announcement to cut the supply of arms to Kurdish fighters pleased Turkey; however, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement that the United States had “never given heavy arms to the YPG so there is none to take back” raised questions in Ankara.  

Most recently, top US generals drafted a plan that recommends leaving the YPG with US-supplied weapons—which include armored vehicles, anti-tank missiles, and mortars—in order to reassure America’s “Kurdish allies” that they were not “being abandoned.” Although it is hard to predict Trump’s instincts in foreign policy decisions, the administration’s current dual discourse—that US troops are leaving Syria, and Washington will not leave Kurds at the mercy of Turkey—signals that the White House tends to perceive the YPG’s arms as a safety valve against potential Turkish attacks. Therefore, it will not request a return of the arms.

Russia: The Elephant in the Room

With Trump’s decision to pull American troops out of Syria, Russia has acquired a stronger role as arbiter, which may not be good news for Turkey. Moscow has long maintained strong ties with the Syrian Kurds, and the YPG’s Marxist roots and links with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) have been an asset in bilateral relations. Strategically, Russia perceives the Syrian Kurds as a force to check Turkey, thus it is not willing to lose them. YPG leaders have already proposed their road map to Moscow; specifically, Syrian Kurds will accept the Syrian Army’s return to rule the territories that, since 2012, were declared autonomous Kurdish cantons, called Rojava. In return for the Syrian government’s restoration of its sovereignty, the Kurds expect a certain degree of autonomy in their everyday self-governance. In fact, as Turkey remains the principal patron of Syrian opposition groups in northwestern Syria, in the long term an emboldened Assad regime will likely support the YPG and PKK against Turkish expansion in the country.

In the short term, however, developments in the Idlib region in northwestern Syria may invite a few rounds of deal-making. Reminiscent of earlier Moscow-Ankara agreements about the area, Russia may support limited Turkish military operations in the eastern Euphrates in exchange for a price in Idlib. Turkey’s military activism in the Idlib region was enabled by Russia as a part of Moscow’s long-term strategy, i.e., prioritizing a victory in the war in western cities and turning its attention to the northwestern Idlib pocket only after the consolidation of power. For Russia, the time is ripe. Turkish officials already expressed their desire for new power-sharing agreements for joint control with Russia and Iran to fill the vacuum of US withdrawal.

Turkey’s military activism in the Idlib region was enabled by Russia as a part of Moscow’s long-term strategy, i.e., prioritizing a victory in the war in western cities and turning its attention to the northwestern Idlib pocket only after the consolidation of power. For Russia, the time is ripe.

Turkey’s problem in Idlib is the increasing clout of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. In recent weeks, HTS has seized more territory, sweeping many towns from the Turkey-supported National Liberation Front alliance and eliminating the once powerful Nour al-Din al-Zenki rebel group. With intelligence operations and more, Ankara has long aimed to marginalize al-Qaeda elements in Idlib. However, the clock is ticking against Turkey as the Syrian regime prepares a major assault. The Turkish government vowed to resist such an operation, fearing that hundreds of thousands of displaced people would flee to Turkey’s borders as a result. Although the Syrian Army is too battle-weary, there is a consensus between Damascus and Moscow to address the jihadist threat, especially the Chechen and north Caucasian militants in Idlib. Thus, with the support of Russia—and acquiescence from the United States—the Assad regime will be more forceful in demanding a Turkish retreat from Idlib.

The New Normal for the Washington-Ankara Line

Washington’s conflicting signals to Turkey have largely ignored domestic Turkish dynamics. It is not simply that US officials cannot read Erdoğan’s mind before the critical March elections in Turkey; rather, Washington does not fully grasp the structural shifts in the Turkish context. When the Obama Administration was forging agreements with the Syrian Kurds, Turkey was engaged in a peace process with the PKK, thus aiming to also make deals with them. In the past few years, however, Turkey’s nationalist alliance has institutionally consolidated. Beyond transactional deals with a short-term focus, the United States needs to adjust its policies and fully comprehend the new reality in Turkey.

The Syrian civil war and ensuing Turkish military operations have benefited Erdoğan’s power consolidation; yet, a long-term commitment to “rule” Syrian territory and protect from YPG attacks may not usher good news for the ruling party.

Likewise, an institutional discussion that was dropped in Washington recently is about the future of civil-military relations in Turkey—which may be relevant to the future of buffer zones in northern Syria. A low intensity conflict with the PKK was the primary reason behind the Turkish military control of politics during the 1990s. The Syrian civil war and ensuing Turkish military operations have benefited Erdoğan’s power consolidation; yet, a long-term commitment to “rule” Syrian territory and protect from YPG attacks may not usher good news for the ruling party. In fact, further militarization would risk disturbing civilian control over the military, especially when Turkish economic prospects are not bright and the Turkish armed forces are already overstretched from northern Iraq to western Syria. Potential future military control in Turkey, however, will be in line with a Russia-Iran axis and not oriented toward the West. Thus, Washington should consider the institutional, long-term implications of Turkey’s commitment in Syria, which may result in unforeseen consequences.

Mustafa Gurbuz is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Mustafa and read his previous publications click here