Beyond rhetoric, U.S. and Turkey want same thing for Syria – analysts

Turkey and the United States have the same broad policy for the end of the Syria crisis, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey and Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow David Pollock said.

Just as the Turks have long urged, the United States now has a coherent policy in Syria. Furthermore, those goals are shared by Turkey. First, the underlying conflict between the Syrian people and the Bashar al-Assad regime should be resolved through a United Nations-led political process leading to a unitary post-Assad state. And second, Iranian influence in Syria should be diminished, and Syria’s neighbours should be kept secure from all threats emanating from Syria. The first goal satisfies Turkey’s two key objectives since 2011: getting rid of Assad, and a unified Syria, with no independent Syrian Kurdistan under the possible rule of the erstwhile allies of Turkey’s enemy, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) movement. The second goal, reducing Iran’s influence in Syria and ensuring that threats do not emanate from there, meets Turkey’s longstanding diplomatic interest (dating back to the Ottoman-Persian Empire conflicts) in containing, as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has recently said publicly, “Persian expansionism”.

However, these diverging interests have not led to a harmonious bilateral relationship, due to the two countries’ differing perspectives on the majority-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its U.S.-supported military affiliate the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which control a large portion of territory on the Turkish-Syrian border, the analysts said.

“The United States has had difficulties convincing Turkey that its support for the PYD and SDF was, in U.S. officials’ words, transactional and solely based on its utility against the Islamic State, in part because of the strong personal links forged between U.S. forces on the ground and the Kurdish fighters, who have been highly effective against Islamic State forces,” they wrote.

“A series of U.S. blunders at every level has made things worse, including former Vice President Joe Biden promising the Turks publicly that the PYD would retreat back across the Euphrates, President Donald Trump’s promise to Erdoğan to immediately cease weapons shipments to the Kurds, and a clumsy Pentagon announcement this month that it would train SDF elements as a border force — on the Turkish border.”

In order to reconcile these two perspectives, the United States should encourage the PYD to distance itself from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a sister-group that is actively battling Turkey inside its borders, the analysts said. Then they should set up channels of communication between the PYD and Turkey and reassure Turkey that they will not allow an independent Kurdish state, in order to ensure the co-operation of both Turkey and the PYD in realising its Syria strategy.

“Without such cooperation … the U.S. presence in northeastern Syria and thus Washington’s entire Syria policy will be difficult to sustain,” they said.

“That would not be in Turkey’s interest, especially as it would result in either Turkey occupying all of northeast Syria in the face of fierce resistance, or allowing that region (and the pro-Kurdish military forces there) to fall under the sway of the Assad regime and Iran.”