By Selcan Hacaoglu and Nafeesa Syeed
Turkey says it’s talking to the Americans. The U.S. says it’s talking to the Turks. Politicians and generals in the two countries are in almost constant communication, judging by their public comments.
There’s no indication that any of this talk has resolved the fundamental argument that’s threatening to bring NATO’s two biggest armies into direct conflict in northern Syria.
When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched an offensive there last month against U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, he started in an area where American troops aren’t embedded with their allies.
But he said the operation will soon extend further east, to the town of Manbij, where they are. “We’ll press against terrorists without taking into consideration who’s next to them,” Erdogan said Jan. 30. Several ministers have made the same point.
Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish militia as part of a terror group seeking to break off a chunk of Turkey. The U.S. has welcomed Kurdish support against Islamic State — and now that that fight is largely done, leaving the Kurds in charge of about one-quarter of Syria, they’re seen as a bulwark against a resurgent Bashar al-Assad and his backers in Iran and Russia.
Russia moved its soldiers in northern Syria out of the way of the advancing Turks. The U.S. is signaling it won’t follow suit.
Withdrawing from Manbij is “not something we’re looking into,” General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, told CNN. “Wherever U.S. troops are, they’re going to be able to defend themselves,” General Kenneth McKenzie, joint staff director at the Pentagon, told reporters on Jan. 25. “We coordinate very closely on that,” he said of the Turks. “They know where our forces are.”
Pentagon chief Jim Mattis told reporters in Washington Friday that it is possible to balance the alliance with Turkey while still supporting the Kurds, and suggested that having U.S. troops working with the Kurdish militias in Syria was one way of aiding Turkey’s security.
“We are convinced right now that by having our troops on the ground, we know they’re not contributing to any attacks on Turkey,” Mattis said.
Ties between the U.S. and Turkey have been tense for years, and when there’s a flare-up Turkish financial markets usually take a hit. Turkey blames America for hosting the Islamic preacher it accuses of instigating a failed coup in 2016. The U.S. last year prosecuted a senior Turkish banker for breaking Iran sanctions. Briefly, both countries stopped issuing visas for each other’s citizens.
The current standoff is probably the most serious. Relations are “teetering on the brink of a precipice,” and direct military conflict is a real possibility, according to Anthony Skinner, a director at U.K.-based forecasting company Verisk Maplecroft. The two nations have drawn red lines, which “magnifies the risk of miscalculation on both sides,” he said.
‘Can’t Be Dismissed’
Turkey’s attack on Kurdish fighters in Afrin, in northwest Syria, came days after the U.S. announced that it would help Syrian Kurds set up a 30,000-strong border security force. Washington later backtracked on that description.
It was probably the new unit’s existence, not its name, that concerned Erdogan. The American focus on such details has angered Turkey before. At a security summit in Colorado last summer, Raymond Thomas, a senior U.S. general, explained how he’d persuaded the Syrian Kurdish fighters to change their “brand,” and distance themselves from the PKK, the Kurdish group fighting for self-rule in Turkey.
But Turkey feels betrayed by the U.S. over its alliance with the Syrian Kurds, however they’re labeled, according to Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey. And it sees a direct threat to its national security from a Kurdish enclave along its southern border, reinforced by American troops and weapons.
That’s why “the risk of a friendly fire between Turkish and U.S. troops can’t be dismissed unless one of the sides back down,” Ozcan said.
Euphrates to Mediterranean
American officials stress that they understand Turkish security concerns. Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bekir Bozdag, said his government wants to avoid a confrontation, though he added that the U.S. “should warn its operatives in the field not to face off with Turkey.”
The biggest Kurdish-held area is further east, toward the point where Syria, Iraq and Turkey meet. But by pushing Kurdish fighters out of Afrin and Manbij, Turkey would clear its enemies from a strategic stretch of land running from the Euphrates River to the Mediterranean, Skinner said.
Wearing a khaki camouflage jacket, Erdogan visited the army operation center near the Syrian border last week. He praised Turkish officers for “rebuilding the nation’s history.”
The president may have domestic political reasons for his campaign too. Public support is running strong, with polls suggesting more than 80 percent of Turks back the operation, and opposition leaders (except the local Kurdish party) falling in line. Erdogan is up for re-election next year, and there’s talk that the vote may be brought forward.