Syria deal changes little of substance for troubled Turkey-U.S. relations

Given the multiple ongoing areas of tension between the United States and Turkey, the agreement this month to begin work on a “safe zone” to prevent conflict in northern Syria came as a surprise to many.  

The agreement was announced in early August, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated his threat to launch a military operation into northern Syria against the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), Syrian Kurdish militias that have fought alongside U.S. forces in the coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Washington sees the YPG and its affiliates as allies, but Turkey views it as a terrorist group due to its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, an outlawed group that is considered a terrorist organisation by Washington and Ankara for its decades-long fight against the Turkish state for Kurdish autonomy.

In fact, the agreement does little to reduce the tension between the two NATO allies, and differences on significant policy issues continue to separate the two.  

The acquisition of Russian S-400 missile defence systems and possibly other Russian defence hardware, drilling for hydrocarbons near Cyprus, relations with Israel, secondary financial sanctions on those trading with Iran, and a general, mutual frustration of each country’s senior leadership with the other’s general foreign policy direction are a few of the issues unaffected by the agreement to create a joint operation centre (JOC) focused on northern Syria. 

The use of the term JOC is a bit misleading, as joint coordination centre would be more accurate - joint operations of US and Turkish forces are unlikely, coordination of their separate activities will be its main work.

The most real benefit of the JOC is that it reduces the possibility that Turkish forces might inadvertently fire upon U.S. personnel.  

As a classic deconfliction effort, the centre has real value, and it should not be downplayed.  One cannot overestimate the damage to U.S.-Turkish relations if Turkish forces, when targeting the YPG/SDF, were to kill U.S. military personnel.  As noted previously, there are many members in the Congress and the Washington foreign policy community who need little incentive to push forcefully to end the U.S. alliance with Turkey.  

The death of U.S. military personnel due to Turkish action, even if inadvertent, would serve their purposes, but not the interests of the U.S. or of Turkey.  Thus, the JOC is deeply valuable, but its value does not extend to other areas of the disagreement.

Those disagreements have each brought different levels of tension.  For now, during the Congressional recess, the F-35 transfer issue is simmering along, but not leading to dramatic calls for sanctions.  This may change after Congress returns, but Trump has already indicated that he is not inclined to punish Turkey for acquiring the S-400s beyond indefinitely suspending Turkey from the F-35 programme.  

While some stridently anti-Turkey voices will demand CAATSA sanctions, the Trump administration and most members of the Congress will be satisfied with Turkey’s de facto expulsion from the programme, which would have provided Turkey with the world’s most advanced multi-role combat aircraft.  

An area of tension more likely to excite the attention of the members of the Congress and those in the national security agencies of the U.S. administration is Turkey’s exploration for hydrocarbon reserves in the waters around Cyprus.  This also links to Erdoğan’s hostility towards Israel. 

Sending exploration ships into disputed waters with Turkish naval escorts is guaranteed to play into the hands of members of the Washington foreign policy community that see Turkey as a malevolent and irrational actor on the regional stage.  Given Turkey’s dependence on imported oil and natural gas, coming to an arrangement with Cyprus and Israel on the development and delivery of eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbons resources would benefit Turkey greatly.  That Erdoğan instead is pursuing a bellicose policy that impedes investment and development of these resources suggests he is allowing his emotions to override pragmatic thinking.  

The Iranian sanctions issue, like the F-35 issue, appears to be simmering along, but is unlikely to cause great consternation between Turkey and the United States.  The Iranian economy is approaching an irreversible downward spiral, brought on by the sanctions and an economy largely dominated by Revolutionary Guard business enterprises noted for their inefficiency and cronyism, but which are impervious to reform. 

Like many others, Turkey resents the imperiousness of U.S. financial sanctions against Iran that affect Turkey.  Yet, breaking those sanctions would only create needless tension with the United States and undermine investors’ confidence.  

Talking of alternative financial options are simply putting a brave face on a hard reality - Turkey cannot afford to withdraw from the U.S.-dominated world financial system.  Also, one wonders how much regret Turkish leaders have that Iran’s current efforts to expand its power and influence in the greater Middle East are being stymied by U.S. sanctions.  

I did not mention in the illustrative list of areas of tension any concerns over Turkey’s recent record on human rights and democracy.  Put bluntly, the Trump administration demonstrates little concern about the internal human rights situation and respect for democratic practices and institutions in Turkey. If in private conversations Trump’s appointees are pressing their Turkish counterparts to respect human rights and democracy, there is no evidence that this is having much effect.  

The words of the official U.S. reaction to the removal this week of three duly elected mayors in the predominantly ethnic Kurdish provinces of Diyarbakir, Mardin, and Van show that the United States will limit itself to ambivalent expressions of concern, but considers the removals an internal affair in which the U.S. should not interfere.  

Those words are worth quoting in their entirety:  “Yeah. So I think in general, anywhere in the world, it’s always concerning when you see the removal of elected officials and then their replacement by unelected officials. That’s obviously concerning, right? So what we hope is to see that Turkey resolves this matter in a way that is consistent with their commitment to democracy, and we, of course, always encourage a broad approach in Turkey’s engagement with the Kurdish communities.” 

With those words, Washington sent a strong message to Erdoğan’s government that its actions towards the Kurds in southeastern Turkey would not generate a strong response, in word or deed, from the United States.  

Clearly, Erdoğan appreciates that the United States will stand by its battlefield anti-ISIS allies the YPG with whom U.S. personnel collaborate, but it has demonstrated no interest in taking the side of Kurdish politicians or defenders of civil rights against the Turkish government.

In sum, the U.S.-Turkey agreement will serve to avoid the disastrous consequences of Turkish military forces engaging against U.S. personnel.  But it does little to nothing to resolve the numerous other areas of tension between the United States. and Turkey, which are likely to get more attention from members of the Congress and the U.S. Foreign Policy community once the August recess ends and as the Presidential campaign gradually heats up.