Many experts and observers of Turkish-U.S. relations are now asking if the current state of relations between the two countries can be fixed or if they have entered an irreversible process of falling apart. Turkey’s Afrin offensive, Operation Olive Branch, which targets People’s Protection Units- (YPG) held areas in northern Syria, is increasing tension. The constant flow of statements from different agencies and departments in Washington since the beginning of the operation has shown the confusion in Washington regarding policy about the future of U.S.-YPG relations and how relations with a NATO ally can be endangered through this process. The changes in the level of concern and the cause of this concern about Turkey’s operation generated rather negative feelings in Turkish society. Even in Washington, this new devotion of some U.S. officials to the YPG at the expense of the majority of the Syrian population and at the expense of a NATO ally started to be questioned. The damage that is being done to the long-term, strategic partnership by those who are running the operation so far seemed to go uninterrupted. Thus, there is a fairly legitimate and acceptable reason for the increasing pessimism about the future of relations.
But is there an exit from this situation for the U.S.? Can the U.S. manage to think about the state of its long-term alliance after this temporary and tactical partnership with the YPG?
Even in Washington, this new devotion of some U.S. officials to the YPG at the expense of the majority of the Syrian population and at the expense of a NATO ally started to be questioned.
For many, today it is rather late due to the trust deficit that emerged in relations. But still, there may be a solution for the existing impasse. And the first step of this process is recognizing that the U.S. has been supporting a Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization with many criminal enterprises whose affiliate organization in Turkey is considered a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the U.S. The fact that it was considered as the best option to fight against Daesh was logically shortsighted and legally problematic, and the fact that the U.S. allowed the group from the very beginning to follow demographic engineering and took steps that could possibly generate an ethnic conflict in the region was imprudent and irresponsible. For the past two years, with immense military support and intensive air cover from the international coalition, which was not provided to any other group since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, the YPG was legitimized and promoted in the international arena. After this much military assistance to a terrorist group, the reaction from Ankara to the disregard and indifference from policymakers in Washington should be understood.
After recognizing this, it should not be difficult to understand the goals for and causes behind the Afrin operation. After much patience, Turkey has now decided to go it alone and resolve the expanding terrorist threat along its border. The number of rocket attacks from northern Syria landing in Turkish cities in the last week show how legitimate Turkey’s concerns are. The U.S. concerns about the limit of the operation, civilian casualties, potential refugee flow and distraction from the fight against Daesh have so far been founded not very genuine by Turkey. According to Turkish policymakers, the operation will continue until YPG elements are eliminated. There is overwhelming support in Turkey for the operation. At this critical time of the operation, instead of expressing new concerns, the U.S. can use this as an opportunity to start the healing process.
The first step should, of course, be supporting the Turkish operation with more genuine statements of support and also through whatever means a country should be helping its ally facing a real threat of terrorism. The reactions to the rockets hitting Turkish cities should be more emphatic. They should be aware that the responsible party is the same organization the U.S. has been training for the last few years.
The second step will concern Manbij. I previously wrote in this column that there are many unfulfilled promises from U.S. officials concerning the YPG presence in Manbij. Now, in this critical period, the goodwill of the U.S. can be presented if it orders the YPG to leave Manbij without the need for a Turkish operation. If Turkey can agree with Russia to launch a military operation in Afrin, as a NATO ally, the U.S. should be able to facilitate the resolution of Ankara’s Manbij problem with an agreement with Turkey. Of course, the west of the Euphrates will not be sufficient for Turkey’s long-term security interest. For YPG members east of Euphrates, the U.S. should also keep another promise and start disarming the YPG in the region and collect the arms provided to the group for the fight against Daesh. The process needs to be transparent for Turkey as well, just like the arming of these groups. Finally, the U.S. should also take some steps to provide for Turkey’s border security and consolidate cooperation against the PKK. Whether it is in Iraq or Syria, the fight against the PKK needs to be endorsed by the U.S. intelligence and military.
These steps are necessary for the U.S. to start improvement in bilateral ties. Briefly, the U.S. should not give empty promises. In fact, to expect the U.S. to keep its promises in order to start the improvement process shows how low expectations are at this point. These low expectations can be an opportunity for the future of relations if the U.S. takes these necessary steps.
This article was first published by Daily Sabah on February 3, 2018.