May 02 2019

Diverging strategies likely to foil U.S.-Turkish agreement in Syria - scholar

Turkey’s rift with the United States in Syria has been blamed on a U.S. reliance on Kurdish militias to pursue its goals in a country in which it is unwilling to commit to a full-scale intervention.

However, this does not give the full story of the drawn-out deterioration of U.S.-Turkish relations, which is better explained by diverging overarching policies since the late stages of the Syrian conflict, said the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Middle East Program director, Aaron Stein.

Washington and Ankara have remained locked in negotiations over a planned “safe zone” in northern Syria, which has been proposed as a means to ameliorate Turkey’s security concerns by removing U.S.-backed Kurdish militias from areas bordering Turkey.

While the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its multi-ethnic affiliate the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been a key element in the U.S.-backed coalition against the Islamic State, Turkey views both groups as a security threat due to their ties to Kurdish militias operating within Turkey.

The United States was unwilling to back Turkey’s initial goal of toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the earlier phases of conflict, but former president Barack Obama later sent military forces to aid in defeating the Islamic State.

Once Obama’s successor Donald Trump took office, though, the U.S. priority in Syria shifted to placing pressure on Assad’s regime and on Iran, a goal that senior U.S. policymakers feel can be achieved by a physical U.S. presence in northeast Syria, Stein said.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s policy has shifted to prioritise the eradication of the U.S.-backed SDF, the creation of safe areas to which Syrian refugees can be returned from Turkey, and to ensuring that Turkey has a say in the resolution of the conflict, said the scholar.

“Given this reality, talks may continue, but compromise and actual negotiations may be impossible,” he said.

The U.S. special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, visited Turkey this week to discuss the situation in Syria with high-level officials.

No material progress appears to have come from that meeting. However, Turkish pro-government news sources and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu hinted later in the week that Trump is mulling a visit to Turkey this summer.