The unintended consequences of the US's Syrian move in Turkey
“I don’t understand why anti-Americanism is so high among Turks,” a diplomat from a Central European country told me, adding to the way the U.S. had helped Europe to recover after World War Two and later defeated communism.
“It’s really not so difficult to understand if you look at U.S. military interventions in the Middle East over the past three decades,” I replied. Consecutive U.S. administration policies have devastated Iraq and Afghanistan and now are affecting Syria, having a detrimental spillover effect on neighboring countries such as Turkey. While anti-Americanism is less widespread in Europe, U.S. interventionist wars are not popular there either.
Anti-Americanism is obviously not a recent phenomenon in Turkey. You can trace it back to the country’s historic skepticism of the West, which reached a peak when the Brits and French tried to divide the Ottoman State using non-Muslim minorities, Kurds and Arabs. The Americans have replaced the English and the French, becoming the principal agent in the Turkish phobia that foreign powers want to weaken Turkey by creating an independent Kurdish state.
Whether these fears are justified or not, anti-Americanism prevails. From the uneducated to the Western educated, village farmer to urban white-collar worker, footballer to painter, a deep skepticism towards Americans is ingrained in a large segment of Turkish society.
When the U.S. acknowledged arming the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the Syrian wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – this large segment felt their suspicions were largely justified. And when the U.S. makes a U-turn after initially promising that its collaboration is limited and tactical, and declares a long-term cooperation with a group considered a mortal enemy of Turks, that large segment feels further vindicated.
As a result, the unintended consequence of the U.S. decision to have a permanent military presence in Syria as a YPG ally becomes an “issue-based” unification of a polarized society in Turkey.
This deep and acute polarization in Turkey along pro- and anti-government lines needs to be carefully analyzed. For example, the
Gülenists made the mistake of counting on government opponents for the success of the July 2016 coup attempt. But government opponents did not support the coup. Not even this bloody deed succeeded in unifying the fragmented society.
Similarly, one should be careful about factoring in polarization while analyzing the government’s possible future moves in its military campaign in Syria.
Although there is an unprecedented pressure upon all civil society organizations to refrain from criticizing the operation, those who might expect genuine yet silenced opposition to the operation among the government opponents might be mistaken.
But obviously the supposedly high level of support for the operation should not be the only incentive to make the U.S. rethink its Syria policy moves.
With the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the roll back policy on Iran seems to have gained priority.
U.S. chances of countering Iran in Syria weakens when the U.S. antagonizes Turkey. Furthermore, Turkey is equally worried about the growing presence of Iran, which gives the two countries a common ground to work out their differences.
With the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) defeated, the U.S. might have more difficulty explaining its military presence in northern Syria to its public especially since Trump has been so critical of “unnecessary wars in the Middle East.” Turkey might not enjoy popularity in the U.S., but the risk of a collision course with Turkey in the Syrian field could remain a hard sell to the U.S. public.