Tamping down the crisis in Turkey

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The U.S. is underestimating the consequences of its deteriorating relationship with Turkey. The current war between Turkey and America’s main partner in Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), is an urgent problem. It is not the only or the most important issue, however. The U.S.-Turkey rift weakens NATO, drives Turkey to an expansionist foreign policy, and strengthens jihadists. American policymakers must confront these problems head on.

The tactical problems to fix are clear. Turkey’s war in Syria places U.S. forces at risk and undermines the stabilization of areas recaptured from ISIS. The YPG is the cornerstone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the U.S. built in order to continue operations into majority Arab areas where YPG forces could not fight alone. ISIS will resurge in these Arab areas first.

Turkey’s war against the YPG also emboldens Russia, Iran, and the Bashar al Assad regime to try to expel the U.S. from Syria. Russian military contractors led a new attack against a joint U.S.–SDF base on Feb. 7, 2018. The U.S. has beat back such attacks, but it failed to deter them.

{mosads}The U.S. has lost sight of the larger issues that American strategy towards Turkey must also address. Turkey is doing more than reacting to U.S. policy in Syria. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is becoming more authoritarian and aggressive as he campaigns to consolidate domestic power and win Turkey’s 2019 presidential election, for which he needs far-right nationalist votes. His Syrian campaign is part of an expansionist, neo-Ottoman foreign policy. The U.S. must constrain Erdogan not only to salvage anti-ISIS gains but also to dampen a global trend towards new wars that redefine state borders.


The American-Turkish rift also undermines NATO’s fundamental principle of collective security. America’s support to the YPG in Syria strengthens Kurdish insurgents that have waged a decades-long military campaign against Turkey. Turkey is working with NATO adversaries, including Russia and al Qaeda, to fight the YPG. 

Russia is watching the erosion of NATO’s fundamental principles in Syria. It is probing for opportunities to exploit seams within NATO, which include rising anti-Turkish sentiment within Europe. Russia is gaining these advantages while acquiring new air and naval bases in Syria. NATO’s failure to contest these bases — or even acknowledge them as threatening — degrades NATO’s deterrence posture.

The U.S. must find a way to reclaim its NATO ally and rehabilitate the alliance. It must also align American and Turkish efforts in Syria to pursue shared goals, including Assad’s departure from power. The U.S., meanwhile, should not accept Erdogan’s forceful consolidation of domestic power or his support for jihadist groups.

The first step for the U.S. is to stem the bleeding. Turkey and the YPG are committed to their current escalation in Syria. The answer is not to choose sides. The U.S. cannot simply abandon the YPG. But nor should it continue to back the YPG unconditionally. The U.S. should make six near-term changes in SDF-held areas.


The U.S. should immediately place critical infrastructure, including the Tabqa Dam, under its direct control in order to deny the YPG coercive power. It should also enlist human rights monitors to inspect YPG prisons, internally displaced persons camps, and other sensitive sites. The U.S. should take additional steps over the next three months: launch a counter-corruption initiative in SDF-held areas; enable locals to file complaints directly with the U.S. to hold the YPG accountable for abuses of power; establish a mechanism with Turkey to adjudicate who returns to Raqqa; and enforce a ban on foreign fighters that would require expelling non-Syrian YPG fighters.

The U.S. can help build inclusive, representative, and fair governance structure in Syria that can be a bulwark against jihadists, Assad’s brutality, and Erdogan’s worst tendencies. These initial steps would position the U.S. as a broker between Turkey, the YPG, Turkish-backed rebels, and local populations in Syria. They would support the U.S. stabilization mission by addressing many of the local grievances that jihadists like ISIS and al Qaeda will exploit to resurge. They will deny Erdogan opportunities to fuel anti-SDF unrest.

The interim goal for negotiations with Turkey should be to hold technical talks on a merger of American-backed and Turkish-backed structures in northern Syria. It will not happen overnight, and compromises will be necessary all around. The U.S. will need Turkey to cease working with al Qaeda and structures it has penetrated. The YPG will want guarantees that Turkey will not resume offensive operations. The negotiations will be hard. But far more is at stake in Syria than the success of the counter-ISIS mission.

Jennifer Cafarella is the Senior Intelligence Planner at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), where she is responsible for shaping and overseeing the development of ISW’s detailed plans and recommendations on how to achieve U.S. objectives against enemies and adversaries and in conflict zones.

Tags Jennifer Cafarella Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Syrian civil war Syrian Democratic Forces Syrian Kurdish–Islamist conflict Turkey

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