Contradictions in Syria sharper than they were in Iraq
It has been 15 years since the Turkish parliament rejected providing support to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in the contentious “March 1 Resolution” vote.
The adverse impact of that vote is still observable today. The rejection of the “March 1 Resolution” set the stage for the negative trend in bilateral relations between Turkey and the U.S., which have hit rock bottom in recent days. Since the vote, the U.S. has stripped back political and military relations with Turkey.
The countries’ ties have never been as strong as they were prior to the 2003 vote. They have kept on deteriorating. Even before the vote, Turkey and the U.S.’s national interests contrasted.
One of the objectives behind the “March 1 Resolution” was to decrease conflicting interests as much as possible and to harmonize the goals of the two countries.
Interests do not coincide
The memorandum of understanding text enclosed in the “March 1 Resolution” was supposed to document the reconciliation. But when the resolution was rejected, the memorandum of understanding was put into cold storage, without ever being debated in the plenary session of the Turkish parliament.
We should not forget that the memorandum of understanding text was penned through long, uphill negotiations. Retired Ambassador Deniz Bölükbaşı, who was leading the Turkish delegation, Gen. Hilmi Özkök, former Turkish Chief of General Staff, and Aytaç Yalman, former Commander of the Turkish Land Forces, are the ones who know the exact details of those negotiations.
Prior to March 1, 2003, Turkey had no problems with the Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad. Turkey’s main concerns were focused on the Kurdish groups, led by Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, in northern Iraq, and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU, which was setting up bases in northern Iraq.
For the U.S, the problem was not the Kurdish groups led by Barzani and Talabani, but Saddam Hussein ruling Baghdad. The U.S. asked Turkey to open its airspace, territorial border, airports and harbors to U.S. forces, in order to help their incursion into northern Iraq.
The U.S. was planning to deploy soldiers in Turkey’s southeast, to fly aircrafts from Turkish airports and to anchor warships at Turkish harbors, and in this way attack Iraq using Turkey as a point of origin. The U.S. was targeting Baghdad whereas Turkey was targeting Barzani, Talabani and PKK forces in northern Iraq.
That was the point a clash of interests erupted. The proposal was rejected in parliament and the memorandum of understanding between Turkey and the U.S. never came into effect. The U.S. forces occupied northern Iraq without the help of Turkey.
They invaded Iraq in cooperation with Barzani and Talabani, and toppled Saddam Hussein. In exchange for cooperation, the U.S. awarded Barzani, Talabani and the PKK both militarily and politically.
The differences in Syria
Nowadays, there is a clash of interests between Turkey and the U.S. in Syria. Unlike in Iraq, Turkey and the U.S. had the same target from the beginning: Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus.
However, the U.S. ceased targeting Bashar al-Assad in order to focus on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), after Russia stepped up its military and political support for Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey has not changed its anti-regime stance, but it has got more involved in the fight against the ISIL, despite previous abstention, and has become effective in the fight. But this was not enough to overlap with the interests of Turkey and the U.S. On the contrary, the contradictions between the two countries have become sharper and deeper.
The controversy between Turkey and the U.S. is much more important than the previous falling out in Iraq. The main players related to the controversy in Iraq were Barzani and Talabani while the PKK gathered strength by staying on the sideline.
This time round, the PKK and its Syrian offshoot the PYD/YPG (Democratic Union Party/People’s Protection Units) are the main players.
The PKK is not on the sideline in northern Syria. It has drawn direct and high-level military and political support from the U.S., and is much more active than it used to be in northern Iraq in the 2000s.
The PKK has been building a semi-governmental structure with U.S. assistance in the region. By stalling and buying time for the PKK, the U.S has given its full support to this process. While Turkey has been keeping itself busy in Afrin and to the west of the Euphrates River in northern Syria, the PKK has been settling to the east of the Euphrates with U.S. help.
Therefore, the clash of national interests between Turkey and the U.S. in Syria is much sharper and more significant compared to the clash in Iraq.
Turkey cannot guarantee its own survival until it has neutralized the PKK/PYD/YPG threat in both the western and the eastern sides of the Euphrates. This means there is a dramatic conflict in interests and escalating tensions between the countries.