U.S. and Turkey remain at odds over Syria

Are U.S.-Turkey relations entering a period of détente? Turkish and U.S. joint patrols this week began outside the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, just across from the Turkish border.  Turkey’s military vehicles and helicopters are being deployed east of the River Euphrates, after its drones started overflying the region in mid-August. The safe zone the Turks have been calling for is seemingly starting to take shape. One less point of friction between Turkey and the United States, one might think. 

Not necessarily. Judging from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rhetoric one would not get the impression that the hatchets have been buried. 

“We are negotiating with the U.S. for the safe zone, but we see at every step that what we want and what they have in mind is not the same thing,” was how he framed the developments in a speech on Sunday.  

"It seems Turkey's ally is after a safe zone in northeast Syria, not for Turkey but for the terrorist group,” the president said observing that “three to five helicopter flights and five to 10 vehicle patrols” were far from sufficient. Erdoğan repeated his habitual threat that, unless the United States heeds Turkish demands, he would send the troops in to rout the Syrian Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates. 

Belligerent talk sheds light on his strategy. Erdoğan seems to think that continued pressure will help him squeeze further concessions from the United States. For starters, he is no doubt eying the possibility of the Turkish armed forces entering the towns along the 5-km strip just south of the Syrian border where the joint patrols circulate. At the maximum, Erdoğan wants to ensure access, on land and by air, over the zone 32-km deep. In his book, therefore, Sunday’s deployments are just the beginning, not the end of the road.  

One thing the Turks want to avoid is the Manbij precedent; the agreement in principle to hand over the city west of the Euphrates to Turkey and its Arab allies. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu made that explicit in a briefing on Monday. 

“The U.S. did not keep its promise in northern Syria, including the Manbij roadmap, due to its engagement with the PKK/YPG,” he said. He lamented what he called cosmetic steps that paid only lip service to Turkish concerns.  

That is a change of tone. Until early 2019, the Turkish Foreign Ministry put a positive spin on the so-called Manbij roadmap, ignoring the fact that the YPG-dominated Manbij Military Council remained in charge. The reason was that they expected President Donald Trump’s out-of-the-blue decision to pull his forces out of Syria made in December 2018 would be carried out. Once the U.S. marines were out, Manbij could have moved to Turkish control, provided Russia would give its blessing and throw the local Kurds under the bus. Yet after it transpired that U.S. troops were there to stay, Turkey found out that the deal was hollow. But then it swept the issue under the carpet as other items became more urgent: the crisis around Idlib, but also the region east of the Euphrates.

Both in Manbij and in the case of the safe zone, the critical variable is how the United States behaves. If the U.S. administration stands its ground and does not yield to Erdoğan’s demands, he is unlikely to risk an all-out showdown. No doubt, the Turkish president will notch up the rhetoric against the “so-called ally”, a phrase used by Çavuşoğlu. U.S. bashing is less costly than flexing your military muscle and running the danger of undesirable escalation.  Linking the themes of U.S. betrayal and Syrian refugees, who could be channelled into the safe zone if Turkey takes charge, is another example of Erdoğan seeking to score domestic political points while avoiding to act on threats. 

That is not to say that it is all rhetorical bluster. Attacks on U.S. troops by Arab militants aligned with Ankara are not unlikely either. There is a precedent, again from Manbij, where a suicide bomber killed four Americans, two servicemen, one civilian contractor and an intelligence officer. To be sure, the evidence of a Turkish connection is lacking. But such incidents would give credence to Ankara’s argument that the United States needs to pass on the responsibility for northeast Syria.  

The bottom line is that neither Turkey nor the United States is happy with the other. Both prefer engagement, but are trying to tweak the deal as they please. But while the Turkish strategy east of the Euphrates remains clear and consistent, the United States remains at a loss as to what its endgame is.