The decades long partnership of the US with one of its major NATO allies, i.e. Turkey, has been under serious strain for some time now due to growing divergence in policies and collision of interests of the two countries in the conflict ridden geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.
Given the mounting mutual distrust, suspicion and absence of any serious efforts to iron the recurring differences, as indicated in several cases including the US refusal to extradite the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen who is accused by Turkey of masterminding the coup in July 15, 2016, a direct military confrontation between the US-led troops and Turkish armed forces in Syria is not so inconceivable.
Lately the strained relations reached a “crisis point” in the aftermath of the revelations that the US-led coalition in Syria intends to create a border security force of 30,000 personnel comprising mainly of Kurdish militia in Syria named People’s Protection Units (YPG) over the next several years. The BSF will be tasked with securing the long sections of Syria’s northern border with Turkey and eastern border with Iraq, as well as parts of the Euphrates river valley. However, this proposal did not sit well with Turkey for the obvious reason that it has since long considered the YPG as a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK of Turkey which is coincidently designated as a terrorist group by both Turkey and the US.
Decrying the US plans, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused the US of forming a “terror army.” “A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our borders,” Erdoğan said in a speech in Ankara. “What can that terror army target but Turkey? Our mission is to strangle it before it’s even born.” It is worth mentioning here that Turkey’s frustration with the US support to and heavy reliance on Kurdish militia in a fight against the Islamic State is not a recent phenomenon. In fact Turkey’s approach to Syrian conflict, apart from fighting the menace of IS, has largely been shaped by its sensitivity to the issue of Kurdish separatism.
Turkey sent troops into Syria in 2016 to prevent Syrian Kurdish fighters from forming a contiguous entity along its border. It has also supported rival Syrian rebels and independently fought to drive IS from parts of Syria. Moreover, Turkey was one of the leading countries along with Iran, Iraq and Syrian government in denouncing the referendum held by Iraqi Kurds for an independent Kurdish state last year in September 2017. The referendum had raised serious concerns in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria that it could encourage their Kurdish minorities to break away.
Thus, given the fact that Turkey is home to the largest Kurdish population at an estimated 14 million, makes a long term US military and political support to the Kurds a serious threat to the territorial integrity and security of Turkey. The US policy on Syria now more than ever dashes Turkey’s hopes that after the defeat of the IS, the US would sever its ties with the Syrian Kurds. Thus, dismayed with the US, on Jan. 20, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch in northwestern Syria’s Afrin to clear the region from the PYD/YPG ‘terrorists’ as well as remaining Daesh elements.
Notwithstanding the high level diplomatic visits to Turkey from the US in a bid to prevent escalation of hostilities in the ties, the situation on the ground bellies any farce of consensus and unity as far as their respective stance on the dynamics of Syrian conflict is concerned.
On the contrary, the situation on the ground suggests that the two countries are probably in for a major direct military confrontation as ominously indicated by Turkey’s decision to enhance the sphere of its military operation into Manbij, where, unlike in Afrin, the U.S. has military presence. However, it is never too late and there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, sincere efforts for peace and appreciation of each other’s concerns instead of prioritizing narrow geopolitical interests can salvage the ties from a major crisis.
To this end, the leadership of the two countries needs to avoid exchange of harsh words. Thus one hopes that ultimately sanity will prevail as both the countries can get nothing out of confrontation except further bloodshed and instability already reining the Middle East.
*Nisar Ahmed Khan, Research Affiliate at Strategic Vision Institute (SVI)