Turkey’s foreign policy in Syria and its relations with NATO are not incompatible
Turkey’s foreign policy implementation continues to cause confusion. Most of Ankara’s allies are particularly concerned about the coordination between Turkey and Russia, questioning whether Turkey is drifting away from its commitments to the Trans-Atlantic security and its allegiance to NATO.
“Operation Olive Branch” against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the Afrin district of Syria and the remarks of high-level Turkish political officials suggesting that it could be followed up by a similar operation on Manbij also cause concerns because of the U.S. military presence there. Is there a risk of a hot military exchange between Turkish and American forces in northern Syria?
From the outset, Turkey and the United States, two major NATO allies, have been unable to reach a common approach towards the Syrian problem. Turkey has always argued that the Bashar al-Assad regime was the major cause of the Syrian civil strife, so his demise was an absolute priority for Turkey. The U.S., on the other hand, agreed that al-Assad could not have a role in the future of Syria but said his replacement could be considered at a later stage during the transition.
Still, there have been joint attempts to organize opposition forces in Syria militarily through the train-and-equip program, which formed the core of today’s Free Syrian Army (FSA). The United States aimed at forming such a structure with a view to coordinating combat against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terrorism. Once the U.S. detected that the FSA was most inclined to fighting against Syrian regime forces, Washington changed its alliance and formed the anti-ISIL platform relying on the YPG. This badly affected the trust between Turkey and the U.S. because Ankara believes that those forces were the extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria.
As attempts in the Geneva peace talks to find a political solution establishing peace and stability continued to fail, Turkey and Russia moved to find a way to bring together the representatives of the Syrian regime and the opposition forces in Astana. That is how the apparent coordination between Turkey and Russia in the Syrian conundrum started.
The Astana process also led to the agreement between Turkey and Russia to put the “de-escalation zone” in Idlib into practice. This agreement, as well as other necessary requirements to coordinate policies in Syria, created the appearance of increased rapprochement between Turkey and Russia. Cooperation in the procurement of a missile defense system also came to fruition, with Turkey deciding to buy S-400s from Russia.
Today, most of Turkey’s allies in the West, including those in NATO and in the EU, see these developments as an indication of growing distance between Turkey and themselves. If Turkey decides to launch an operation towards Manbij further exacerbates concerns about the risk of escalation between Turkey and the U.S.
It is necessary to underline that Turkey’s membership of NATO is a corollary to the enhancement of its national security and complements its national defense strategy. Trans-Atlantic security is equally strengthened by Turkey’s presence in the NATO alliance. As a result, Turkey and the United States should surely be expected to find a political settlement to the dilemma they face in Syria.
Turkey’s coordination with Russia in Syria, on the other hand, is mostly focused on the establishment of “de-escalation zones” and providing a favorable setting for the success of Geneva peace talks. Certainly, Turkish-Russian bilateral relations also require cooperation in many other fields. But such cooperation is mainly based on a transactional and pragmatic relationship. It should never be interpreted as an alternative to Turkey’s commitments to its existing allied relations and partnerships.
Today’s world requires stronger solidarity between members of the Euro-Atlantic community. Turkey is one of the main pillars of that community and should remain so.