With an authoritarian and anti-American wave already washing over Turkey, the regional strategic landscape continues to change in ways that, just in the course of the last week, threaten to submerge the few remaining shared interests America and Turkey have in Syria. If Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Turkey tomorrow with a status quo message that does not reflect this new landscape, it will only contribute to Turkey’s strategic re-alignment towards Russia and Syria. This analysis examines two of the most important changes and their implications for current U.S. policy.
Change #1: Kurds and Assad turn on one another
A new, surprising front erupted in the five-year-old Syrian civil war last week, with Syrian Kurdish groups and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces turning on each other in dramatic fashion. This led to a fraught encounter between Syrian warplanes seeking to bomb Kurdish positions and intercepting U.S. fighter jets seeking to protect their Kurdish partners. This presents a serious complication for U.S.-Syria policy, one that might not be unrelated to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit two weeks ago with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It has been a long-standing foundation of U.S. policy in Syria that the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) is the main threat and priority, with other terrorist groups coming in a distant second, and the Assad regime barely registering. Indeed, one significant reason for the failure of the U.S.-led train-and-equip program for the Syrian opposition has been a lack of groups willing to accept Washington’s demand that any participants restrict their activities to fighting ISIS. The only group that had been thus far interested only in ISIS has been the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), which has become the main U.S. partner in Syria for combating ISIS on the ground.
One reason for the failure of the U.S.-led train-and-equip program for the Syrian opposition has been a lack of groups willing to focus solely on fighting ISIS.
While the U.S.-YPG partnership has had significant results—including the capture of the strategically vital city of Manbij—the legitimacy of the YPG among other Syrian rebel groups has been significantly undermined by both ethnic differences (Kurdish v. Sunni Arab) as well as the perception that the Kurds and Assad had struck a bargain: agreeing to give each other a wide berth in order for each to more freely pursue their enemies. This partnership has also irked, to put it mildly, Ankara, which sees the YPG as an extension of the Turkish terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party and has made the prevention of an autonomous Kurdish entity in Syria one of its top foreign policy priorities. As a result, much of U.S. policy towards Turkey over the past two years has been consumed by attempts to cajole or compel Turkish acquiescence for U.S. cooperation with the YPG. However, if hostilities continue between the YPG and regime forces, the U.S. approach of targeting only ISIS while assiduously avoiding Assad is going to be seriously complicated.
Change #2: Turkey warms to Assad and his benefactors
At the same time, the willingness of Assad to break a de facto five-year-old non-aggression pact with the YPG could also help endear him to Erdoğan. While removing Assad and reining in Kurdish aspirations have competed to be Turkey’s top priority in Syria, it is undoubtedly the YPG threat that is more immediate and against which Erdoğan has been more willing to take action. Thus, if ever there was to be a way to moderate Erdogan’s stance against Assad, having the regime take up arms against the YPG would be it. When Erdoğan traveled to St. Petersburg two weeks ago to reconcile with Putin, BPC speculated that any sort of geostrategic rapprochement might involve Russia agreeing to side with Ankara against the YPG, and perhaps push Assad to do the same. Syrian regime airstrikes against the Kurdish group just two weeks after this meeting seems too big a coincidence to ignore.
The idea of a Turkey-Russia-Iran trilateral group on Syria appears to be gaining ground.
In other words, if the United States counted on the fact that finding themselves on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict would keep Turkey from building closer ties with Russia and Iran, that geopolitical logic may no longer hold.
First, during Erdoğan and Putin’s St. Petersburg meeting and then again during last week’s visit to Turkey by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, the idea of a Turkey-Russia-Iran trilateral group on Syria appears to be gaining ground. This would be unthinkable for Turkey without getting some sort of concession that would allow it to claim at least partial strategic victory in Syria. Assad attacks on the YPG could serve precisely that purpose.
Conversely, such a rapprochement would be unthinkable for Moscow and Tehran were Turkey to maintain its strict hostility to the Assad regime, which Russia and Iran had fought so hard to protect. Turkey signaled precisely such a weakening of its position this week when Prime Minister Binali Yildrim suggested that Ankara might accept Assad sticking around, at least for a little while. “There may be talks (with Assad) for the transition. A transition may be facilitated,” Yildrim said.
The fighting between YPG and Assad forces in Hasaka puts Washington in a difficult position. To maintain its delicate anti-ISIS coalition, it will have to rein in the YPG. But even if the YPG stands down now, Assad might have a strong incentive to continue harassing them precisely because it might unravel the U.S.-Turkish partnership. To protect its Kurdish partners and the U.S. forces supporting them, as well as to dissuade further Syrian aggression, the United States might have to act more aggressively against Assad than it has been willing to do thus far. Yet, precisely at the same time that the United States is being pressured into a more anti-Assad position by its Kurdish allies—something that Ankara had long sought from Washington—Ankara is actually softening its position on the Syrian regime.
If both these dynamics (YPG-Assad, Turkey-Assad) continue to play out on their current trajectory, the United States might be left fighting Assad with the YPG against, or at least without the support of, Turkey. This would be a strange turn of events in an already convoluted conflict and one that would do little to serve U.S. strategic interests. To prevent this, in the few short days before Biden leaves, U.S. policymakers will have to quickly decide just how much they value continued cooperation with Turkey or—as is more likely to be the case—just how much political capital they are willing to spend to keep Ankara from joining the Moscow-Tehran axis.