President Barack Obama’s decision to work with questionable Kurdish elements in the fight against the Islamic State has effectively left the U.S.-Turkey alliance in tatters, and America’s adversaries are seizing upon the opportunity to try to sever the partnership completely.
The loss of Turkey as U.S. partner was most clearly exhibited when Russian, Turkish and Iranian diplomats met in Moscow in December to discuss a solution to the ongoing crisis in Syria. A U.S. presence was noticeably, and intentionally, absent. The meeting added insult to injury after Syrian rebels were forced to surrender the city of Aleppo to government forces just days before.
Turkey’s decision to pursue tighter relations is a remarkably new phenomenon born out of Obama’s missteps in the fight against ISIS. Just over a year ago, it appeared that Russia and Turkey were on the brink of war, after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter that drifted into its territory. Today, the two countries are remarkably close.
While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dangerous Islamist politics do not mesh with U.S. interests, the Obama administration’s insistence on supporting left-wing Kurdish militia groups has caused remarkable strain in the U.S.-Turkey alliance. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units, also known as the YPG, are Syrian Kurds who allied together to fight ISIS after the group’s rise in 2013 and 2014. YPG units typically serve as a militia group, but they also have ties to the far left Democratic Union Party of Syria, also known as the PYD. The YPG is a convenient stand-in for the Obama administration in its fight against ISIS, given that they allow the president to avoid putting large amounts of U.S. boots on the ground, which he promised to prevent while campaigning in 2008.
The YPG may be useful to the U.S., but they are a major security concern for Turkey. Kurdish Marxist separatists in southeastern Turkey, known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have been fighting with the Turkish government for decades. While the YPG claims to be distinct from the PKK, there is evidence that shows quite the opposite.
“While the White House lawyers may dispute it, there is plenty of evidence of very close political, social and operational connections between the YPG and PKK fighters,” Amb. Robert Ford, a fellow at the Middle East Institute and professor at Yale University, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. Ford served as U.S. ambassador to Syria during the start of the Syrian civil war, and personally witnessed the chaos that followed.
Turkey considers the YPG and PKK terrorist organizations, while the U.S. has only designated the latter. Regardless, Erodgan still considers any support to the YPG support for terrorism, and his government has not been afraid to call the U.S. out for it.
“The United States has tried in the effort against ISIS to have it two ways — to work with Turkey and to partner with the pro-PKK YPG,” Amb. Ross Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and a current senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told TheDCNF. “Pretending that these approaches were not contradictory was always an unsustainable strategy.”
Ford added that the White House policy has “corroded the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship substantially.”
While Obama was trying to have it both ways with Turkey, Erdogan’s distrust of the U.S. grew, he even suspected the U.S. may have been involved in a failed coup against him in July 2016. There was no credible evidence to prove the U.S. had any involvement, but that did not stop Erdogan from reaching out to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was more than happy to sway a key North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally.
“The Kremlin sees opportunities for expanding its influence, the Turks believe they must adjust their stance given how developments in Syria are unfolding,” noted Wilson.
Iran has also capitalized on the weakness of the Turkish-U.S. alliance, as it continues to assert its influence in Iraq and Syria.
Wilson sees the resulting troika partnership between Turkey, Russia and Iran as “largely tactical cooperation” for the short term, however, the December negotiations may be a sign of things to come. Ford sees several negative implications for future U.S. policy goals. First, Assad will stay in power. Second, there may be some reduction in fighting in Syria temporarily, but the Bashar al-Assad regime is likely to continue its massacre. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the U.S. will be left out of any short-term ceasefire agreements in Syria.
“Even though that short-term deal could affect jihadi recruitment, and thus the outcome of the American military operations against extremists in Syria, the U.S. will have little influence over the negotiation,” explained Ford.
The Obama administration’s failure with Turkey may sound grim, but there may be hope going forward as the Trump administration takes over. But a solution will not be easy, as both sides continue to alienate one another.
“The incoming U.S. administration will have to find ways to square the circle,” said Wilson. He claimed a solution would likely require fostering cooperation between the Turks and Syrian Kurds, which involves moving the Kurds away from their ties to the PKK.
While the two groups are interconnected, Turkey has formulated close relations with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraqi Kurdistan. As Wilson noted, the Turkish government is not anti-Kurdish so much as it is anti-PKK.
Ford argued that a better solution would be to “re-orient” away from the YPG and instead build up local Arab forces in Syria with Turkey and Russia.
“You need Russia now to help secure buy-in from Damascus/Tehran which won’t be at all easy,” noted Ford.