Kyle Orton
Jun 07 2018

Turkey's Syria policy and the June elections

On June 24, for the first time in 15 years, there seems a possibility, however faint, that elections in Turkey will end in defeat for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

It is an uphill battle, not least because of the ongoing state of emergency after the 2016 attempted coup, which has exacerbated the systemic biases against Erdoğan’s political opponents. But the Turkish opposition has managed to overcome its own fractiousness and has a strategic game-plan that makes sense. One card Erdoğan still has to play is foreign policy, and there are signs in Syria and Iraq of advantageous news to come.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met his U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo on Monday. The main item on the agenda was Manbij, a town in northern Syria held by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish force Turkey says is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey for more than 30 years.

The United States promised Turkey two years ago that Manbij would be cleared of YPG/PKK elements and left to local rule. The failure to fulfil that promise has been a running sore in U.S.-Turkish relations, a particularly intense microcosm of the broader issue arising from the United States deputising the YPG as its ground force in Syria for the war against Islamic State (ISIS).

In late May, a “roadmap” for Manbij was created, its terms remaining deliberately vague, and the joint statement after the Çavuşoğlu-Pompeo meeting reaffirmed commitment to it. For the Turkish government, a resolution of Manbij that removes YPG/PKK control would not only be a step in the right direction on a serious security problem, it would be a political step in the right direction with the Americans. As Çavuşoğlu said the day before he met Pompeo, such an outcome “may be a turning point for bilateral relations”.

This comes at a moment of tension not seen since the U.S. arms embargo against Turkey for the 1974 invasion of Cyprus.

In April, the U.S. Congress threatened sanctions against Turkey over its arrest of pastor Andrew Brunson, one of the Americans caught in the dragnet after the failed coup. Erdoğan had suggested that Brunson was a hostage to be traded for Fethullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania-based Islamist cleric whose votaries in the military seem to have led the coup. Though Turkey’s attempts to extradite Gülen have failed for legal reasons, it has become another problem in relations.

Around the same time, other U.S. officials noted that Turkey’s purchase of a Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system could “potentially lead to sanctions” under U.S. statutes.

Then has come the vexed question of Iran. In May, a U.S. court sentenced Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive of the Turkish state-owned Halkbank, for the so-called “gas-for-gold” sanctions-busting scheme. Atilla was tried alongside Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian gold trader, who took a plea and turned state witness. Zarrab’s testimony implicated Erdoğan in the scheme. Zarrab has since been accused of rape; he contends this is part of a Turkish effort to blacken his reputation. Ankara denounced the case as being based on evidence fabricated by Gülenists when they ran the Turkish judiciary and part of an American “plot” against Turkey. The withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and Turkey’s objection increases the chances that more Turkish individuals and entities will get themselves caught up in American sanctions, something that has already begun, and this will become another point of political friction.

All of these matters have fed into conspiracy theories that the United States supported the coup and/or is continuing efforts to unseat the government, an anti-Americanism the state has played to its advantage. An accord over Manbij offers a way out, for the United States to square the circle of its relations with Turkey and the YPG/PKK. With the collapse of ISIS and its transition to insurgency, this appears more feasible since the United States has the space to recalibrate with the YPG. In addition, Turkey has been altering the terms on the ground against the PKK.

Turkey and its rebel dependencies expelled the YPG from Afrin in March and forced their ostensible retreat from Sinjar, on the Iraq-Syria border. There is, too, likely a Turkish hand in the campaign that has destabilised the remaining YPG-held areas in Syria. Indeed, while many challenges, notably bringing order and balancing Russia and Iran, remain, Turkey appears to have things going its way in Syria. Some progress toward normalcy has been made in the Euphrates Shield and Idlib areas and the Turks have moved more firmly against Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former al-Qaeda branch, ordering its disbandment and preparing a unified rebel force, the National Liberation Front, which could theoretically be mobilised against HTS.

In the background, the Turkish Army was quietly moving into Iraqi Kurdistan, towards the Qandil Mountains, the central node of the PKK that distributes resources and instructions to the various fronts, something Turkey intends to cut off, further weakening the group in Syria and elsewhere. Ankara broke its silence on this operation over the weekend and announced on Monday that an attack on Qandil itself was just a matter of time. Turkey has made repeated efforts to dislodge the PKK from Qandil and proven incapable in this most insurgent-friendly terrain.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, a deal with the U.S. on Monday over Manbij and the onset of a military operation against the PKK headquarters before the election, assuming it does not go too badly too quickly, would surely redound to Erdoğan’s benefit.