Syria’s impact on Turkey-US relations
In recent weeks, especially since the deterioration of relations between Turkey and the U.S., those who underline the significance of the relationship and the necessity of cooperation between the two countries indicate that some crisis areas in the Middle East are shared concerns and suggest how the two countries can launch a partnership that will serve the interests of both countries.
The diversification of the strategic partnership in the Middle East was pointed out as one of the ways to resolve the bilateral issues. And the resolution of the Gulf crisis through cooperation was a suggested opening in the relations. However, a more urgent issue has emerged that the U.S. and Turkey should jointly work on – the growing crisis in Idlib.
It is now clear that a potential offensive by the Bashar Assad regime in Idlib will constitute another significant turning point in the Syrian crisis. Idlib’s more than 3 million people face another humanitarian disaster. It is also the last opposition stronghold in Syria; the capture of Idlib by the regime forces will mean that the opposition groups do not control any territory in Syria. Any attack on the province can cause another massive exodus and a major humanitarian crisis. Of course, the retreating members of the radical groups in the region will also generate a major security problem. Given the potential humanitarian, security and geopolitical repercussions, Turkey and the U.S. may consider putting their current differences aside and focus on building a working relationship.
First of all, it is important for the U.S. and Turkey to make sure the Geneva process is alive and that the Syrian opposition groups are represented so they can become a part of the political solution in the country. For the opposition groups, to be able to have legitimacy and become a stakeholder, it is important they have relevance on the ground. Thus for the interest of both countries, it is significant that the regime does not eliminate all opposition groups. After the U.S. formed a new team on Syria which includes Ambassador James Jeffrey and Colonel Joel Rayburn, there are some expectations that it can now formulate a new policy – one that aims to not just keep the Geneva process relevant, but fixing Turkey-U.S. relations at the same time. This would form a significant diplomatic alignment between the two allies in regards to the Syrian conflict.Secondly, top U.S. officials, for the first time, expressed their concerns over the situation in Idlib last week. We do not know the reason, whether it is humanitarian, geopolitical or security, but there is an increasing degree of interest in the situation in Idlib. This also matches with the Turkish concerns about the situation in Idlib. However, the tone, the intensity of the rhetoric and the urgency of the situation are different for both countries. After a significant period of time, the two countries are finding each other as potential partners in Syria.
The joint position against a regime offensive in the region and a principally adopted position in regards to the use of chemical weapons against civilians will be a major deterring force against the Syrian regime. Although the U.S. did not commit to its “red lines” in regards to the use of chemical weapons during the Obama administration, the Trump administration last April took a stance against the use of chemical weapons, after the regime’s attack in Idlib.
Last week in his op-ed in Wall Street Journal, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan underlined the fact that chemical weapons should not be the only criteria for deterring the regime when it has actually killed so many more Syrians through the use of conventional weapons. A joint stance by the U.S. and Turkey on the principle of protecting civilians will be very important at this point.Finally, the handling of the Idlib question will be important for both countries’ counterterrorism efforts. Idlib not only became the last resort for many of Syria’s internally displaced people but also for different radical groups. To find a way to deal with the radical groups is an important security priority for both Turkey and the U.S. As the two countries, who have been partners in the global fight against terrorism and in the international coalition against Daesh, they have a lot of experience and capability to deal with the different radical groups.
For many, bilateral relations started to fail after tactical divergences and strategic ambivalence in Syria. The two countries could not agree on different issues, including the U.S. military support for the PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the failure of the “train and equip program.”
However, the latest crisis in Syria can actually help revive relations, but only if the U.S. and Turkey can establish a meaningful conversation, effective channels for dialogue and the intention to work together toward common objectives.
This article was first published by Daily Sabah on September 14, 2018.