Turkey’s cross border activity in northern Syria has brought to attention the terrifying prospect of a direct confrontation between two NATO allies. Ankara’s initial plan was to seize control of the Afrin enclave held by Syrian Kurds, specifically Syrian Kurdish militia the YPC, a branch of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). The grouping is considered a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the US. However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the operation would be extended to Manbij and possibly also beyond.
Yet, unlike Afrin, which is under Russian influence, Manbij and Rojava are enclaves mostly used by American troops to equip and train the YPH for the fight against ISIS. More than 2,000 American personnel are stationed in the region. Admittedly, there are concerns over possible confrontation between Turkish soldiers and US troops on Syrian soil. This extreme scenario is, however, far from fiction. They key consideration is whether Ankara is genuinely ready to challenge the US in Syria. Or is it just the rhetoric with the aim to deter the Americans from engaging more deeply with the Syrian Kurds? At the same time, it is also important to ask whether Washington believes that the Turks are bluffing and that they will not attack the YPG in Manbij.
History approves of the fact that when trust erodes, parties can miscalculate. Moreover, the institutional ties that were previously the basis for the relationship between the US and Turkey have weakened and military ties are now obsolete. The situation is also hard to manage due to the changing priorities of the US foreign policy. A direct confrontation between Turkish and American troops would have major long-term implications for transatlantic security. This would cause damage to the bilateral relations between the two countries as well as question Turkey’s future commitment to the Alliance.
Turkish public opinion is already skeptical of the benefits of NATO membership. A poll in November 2017 found that 67 per cent of Turks believe that the country’s security can be assured outside of the Alliance. On the US side, instead of testing Turkey’s intentions in northern Syria, Washington should encourage the finding of a mutual interest with Ankara. Turkey and the US should take the lead together in creating a humanitarian corridor for the civilians in the area. Both sides should also work on restoring the trust that has been lost. This will be key if talks between the two allies on the future of Syria are to be successful and bring about new security order in the Middle East.
‘Cooperation is in Turkey and America’s Best Interests’ – Op-Ed by Sinan Ülgen – Carnegie Europe.