Limits of US-Turkey cooperation in Syria

The panel. PC: Eddie Grove
The panel. PC: Eddie Grove

On Thursday, the SETA Foundation hosted a talk entitled The U.S.-Turkey “Safe Zone” Agreement: What does it mean?.  Panelists included: Sabiha Senyucel, research director of the Center for Public Policy and Democracy Studies (PODEM), Mark Perry, independent author, Melissa Dalton, fellow and chief of staff at the CSIS International Security Program, and Kadir Ustun, Executive Director of the SETA Foundation. Kilic B. Kanat, research director of the SETA Foundation, moderated.  The panelists believe that the recent US-Turkey cooperation in Syria will remain limited because Turkey and the US continue to have divergent interests.

Senyucel said that the recent bombing in Southeast Turkey pushed Turkey to take a more active role in the anti-ISIS coalition.  Now the coalition can use İncirlik for bombings.  The Kurdish issue is no longer just a domestic Turkish issue.  The Turkey-PKK peace process is finished for now, but Senyucel hopes it can restart soon.  The roles of the PKK, the PYD and the Syrian Kurdish entity are all linked.  YPG fighters fought ISIS in Kobane, giving the Kurds international legitimacy.  This changed the Kurds’ thinking about what they could achieve regionally.

Istanbul by night, from the air.  PC: Eddie Grove
Istanbul by night, from the air. PC: Eddie Grove

After Kobane, the YPG and PKK demonstrated that they could fight ISIS on the ground and US airstrikes helped them take Tel Abyad.  This concerned Turkey, which has good reason to distrust the PYD because of its links to the PKK. After the Gezi Park protests, the PKK stopped honoring its commitments and asserted de facto control over some parts of Eastern Turkey.  There may have been mistakes from the Turkish side, but the Turkish government also displayed restraint.  The PKK’s mid-July announcement that they were returning to arms was unjustified. Turkey is now reminding the PKK that they won’t achieve their ambitions.  The US has agreed to support Turkey in this, but Senyucel isn’t sure how long this will last.

Kadir asserted that the US and Turkey can’t agree on the big picture in Syria.  Obama believes the US only has limited interests; he isn’t trying to fix Syria.  The PYD is a local actor that can contribute to the US’s non-strategy strategy.  Turkey has tried to protect its border, host refugees, prevent the spillover of the conflict and resolve the Kurdish question.  Necessity has limited Turkish actions.  Turkey can’t ally with the PKK-linked PYD; the PKK has asserted de facto control over some towns in eastern Turkey and hasn’t fully committed to withdrawing guerrillas.

Turkey will allow the US to use İncirlik and will work to create a safe zone in Syria for the moderate opposition.  Ankara wants a broader strategy from the US, but the US is uninterested.  Will planes taking off from İncirlik help the PYD?  The PYD has been reluctant to distance itself from the PKK and stop expelling Arabs from its territory.  The PYD also allows Assad’s air force to overfly the territories it controls.  If these things continue, the US and Turkey won’t come to a real agreement, but both sides need a broader strategy to make lasting progress.

Dalton agreed that the US and Turkey have divergent objectives.  The Turks have called the recent agreement a safe zone, but the US has avoided this term.  The agreement will involve enhanced border cooperation.  The length of this cooperation area will be ~65 miles, but other elements are unknown:

  1. How deep into Syria will it go?
  2. Will Assad’s air force be excluded?
  3. Will there be cover for civilians in nearby cities outside the zone?

Broader US-Turkey cooperation will be needed for a long-term solution, but the anti-ISIS fight and border cooperation are likely to be the focus for now.

Perry highlighted the fact that there is unlikely to be any well-articulated US strategy from this administration, but there are three observable US policy principles:

  1. We maintain relations with allied regional states despite difficulties.
  2. Our enemy is Islamic extremism.
  3. There is no appetite for strong anti-Assad action.

We want Assad to lose, but don’t want his opponents to win.  This is a tough line to walk with Turkey.  The use of İncirlik will allow the US to gather better drone intelligence.  Assad is unlikely to launch air operations in the area of the proposed safe zone because Assad doesn’t want to tangle with the US Air Force.  The Obama administration’s vagueness may not be bad.  The US has made many foreign policy mistakes; doing nothing is a viable option since Syria is so complex.  We can protect our friends, maintain our strength, assist the victims, and remain friendly with Erdogan, without further intervention.

Qasr Kharaneh, Jordan, near the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center,  where the US and Jordan conduct joint exercises.  It is believed that some of the rebels in the train and equip program are being trained in Jordan. PC: Eddie Grove
Qasr Kharaneh, Jordan, near the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center, where the US and Jordan conduct joint exercises. It is believed that some of the rebels in the train and equip program are being trained in Jordan. PC: Eddie Grove

Barbara Slavin, nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council South Asia Center, asked about the US train and equip program.  Many of the 54 rebels that we have trained have reportedly been captured by Jabhat Al-Nusra.  Slavin asked whether the possible safe zone could be an injection point for these rebels. Dalton stated that it could be used for this purpose, because there is currently no other logical injection point.  However, questions about how and at what cost the US and Turkey plan to protect such a zone remain.  Kadir took a similar position, noting the slowness of the program.  Perry discounted the program entirely, noting that the last successful US train and equip program was in the Philippines in 1899.  The US is keeping the fiction of train and equip so that we can keep our hand in the game in Syria.


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