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Why Alarm Bells Should be Ringing over U.S. Special Operations Forces in Manbij: Lessons from the 2010 Gaza Flotilla

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Turkish forces’ recent incursion into northwest Syria has further complicated an already extremely complex situation in Syria. Ankara is also repeating its threats to open an additional front eastwards and attack the Syrian town of Manbij, that is held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (which while being comprised of fighters from a mix of ethnic and religious backgrounds has a large portion of  Kurdish forces, specifically the People’s Protection Units, the YPG) after their  success in taking over the city from ISIS. 

As the situation in Manbij remains precarious there is also some presence of U.S. forces there to help in stabilization efforts. Continued collaboration by U.S. forces with the YPG after the territorial defeat of ISIS has led to deep anger in Turkey that has stated time and again that it sees the group as part of the larger PKK terror organization. Recent visits to Ankara by U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicate rising concerns regarding a possible clash between U.S. special operations forces in Manbij and Turkish forces. Such a clash may not be intended, but rather might be the result of cross-fire or an accident of some kind. Should such an incident occur it will have a longstanding effects on Turkish-U.S. relations, which are already in a volatile state. 

Turkish forces’ recent incursion into northwest Syria has further complicated an already extremely complex situation in Syria. 

Looking back to an incident in which Turkey and a previously trusted ally collided—the 2010 Gaza flotilla event, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli naval commandos—alarm bells should be ringing in Washington. On the face of it the comparison might seemed far-fetched. However, it should be emphasized that the tragic results of the Gaza flotilla event were in many respects an accident. At the time of the incident both heads of state were away from the country. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Nethanyahu, was in Canada and planned to continue later to the United States and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in Iran, so it is difficult to claim either of them was forecasting the severity of the incident that was about to commence.  

Israel had knowledge that the Gaza flotilla was being organized more than four months before the ships set sail, and already two months before the event took place it knew of the involvement of a Turkish non-governmental organization with radical Islamist orientation, IHH, in organizing the flotilla. Thus, there was ample time for diplomatic endeavors and indeed there were prior negotiations between Turkish and Israeli representatives, as well as through American representatives, that the convoy would alter its course to Ashdod in Israel or Al-Arish in Egypt instead of heading to Gaza. The failure to reach a decisive prior agreement was the result of colliding interests. Turkey wanted Israel to be confronted over its policies toward the Gaza strip and Israel thought its policies toward Gaza, specifically the naval blockade and the restrictions over what could enter Gaza through the land crossings, were the only way to deal with the takeover of Gaza by the extreme Palestinian faction Hamas. This zero-sum thinking is not distant from Turkish insistence that the United States stop supporting the Kurdish YPG on one side, and U.S. future plans for Syria that do not see an alternative to reliance on the YPG on the other    

One should also not ignore the anti-American rhetoric coming from Ankara and the negative atmosphere in the bilateral relations. At the time of the Gaza flotilla there were already serious cracks in Turkish-Israeli relations, but it was only two years before that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had entrusted in then-Prime Minister Erdoğan the delicate mediator role between Israel and Syria. Speaking four months before the flotilla event, Erdoğan in an interview said that Israel “should give some thought to what it would be like to lose a friend like Turkey in the future.” In early February 2018, Erdoğan said the United States has “calculations” against Turkey in Syria. The combination of threatening rhetoric and a zero-sum presentation of the problems in Turkish-U.S. relations is prone to result in a miscalculation. To avert this, the United States is wise to pursue discussions at the highest level with Turkey, but until a well-drafted and agreed upon solution to the question of Manbij is achieved, U.S. and Turkish policymakers should remain alert.  

KEYWORDS: PKK, REX TILLERSON, SYRIA, TAYYIP ERDOGAN, TURKEY, YPG