Turkey’s dangerous offer to have boots in the Syrian ground

Turkey’s dangerous offer to have boots in the Syrian ground

U.S. President Barack Obama has said failing to prepare for the aftermath of the ousting of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was the worst mistake of his presidency.

Since then, this mistake seems to have marked Obama’s policies in the Middle East.

Although he explains it with different reasoning in his interview with the Atlantic, the “what will happen the day after” syndrome must have played an important role in Obama’s reluctance to endorse a more assertive military strategy in Syria. In fact, one could assert with confidence that the Obama administration would not let the regime fall in Syria if it knew it would lead a majority of the country to fall into the hands of radical Islamists.

Currently another “day after” issue is on the table between Turkey and United States. What happens the day after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is “cleansed” from the Turkish border?

A successful offensive in Raqqa will strike a deadly blow to ISIL. Currently the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are primarily composed of Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) members, stands as the most powerful force capable of staging this offensive. Preparations are ongoing to take the town of Manbij, which is Raqqa’s last line of defense. This will no doubt take place with U.S. aerial support. 

A successful offensive against Manbij would certainly strengthen the hands of PYD, which is seen by Turkey as an affiliate of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). With the cease-fire ended in summer, the violence that resumed between the PKK and the Turkish Armed forces has continued uninterrupted ever since. U.S.-PYD cooperation certainly boosts the PKK’s self-confidence to attack Turkey. 

In this backdrop, the critical issue between Turkey and the U.S. is the aftermath of a successful offensive against ISIL in Manbij followed by Raqqa. If this is to take place under the U.S.-PYD coalition, this will give an upper hand to Syrian Kurds on the Turkish border, which Turkey believes will weaken its fight against the PKK. 

For that reason, according to Hürriyet’s Verda Özer, Turkey has told the Americans to give up on the Kurds and that it will have the boots on the ground to replace the Kurds. 

If the Americans had said yes, this would have been a first in terms of Turkish armed forces going on a combat mission outside of Turkish borders in the absence of a U.N. resolution, a NATO mandate or a bilateral agreement with the foreign country.

To think that the U.S. would have accepted the offer (something possible perhaps three years ago) shows how Turkey’s ruling elites are unable to analyze Washington. To think that the benefits of having boots in the Syrian field will outweigh the dangerous consequences show how the same elites are unable to analyze the region’s realities. It seems Ankara sees no problem in getting drag on the Syrian turmoil. 

To put it in the Crisis Group’s wording:  

“The war’s key protagonists seem to agree on one thing only: that their interests are best served by intensifying rather than de-escalating the fighting. This is true across conflict theatres, as seen in the approaches of Ankara and the PKK in Turkey; Ankara and the YPG [People’s Protection Units, the military arm of PYD] in Syria and IS [ISIL] in both Syria and Turkey.”

This will certainly not help the U.S.’ interests in the region; that’s why the Obama administration should lend an ear to the Crisis Group’s advice:

“Washington should shift its priority from ‘degrading and destroying’ IS toward the broader, related goal of preventing further destabilization (while continuing its fight against IS); make clear that PKK actions in Turkey will affect how the U.S. views its relationship with the YPG in Syria; and signal to Ankara that returning to a program of rights-based reforms and preparing the way for new talks with the PKK would enable the U.S. to strengthen its efforts to address Turkey’s transborder security concerns.”