Fears of a ‘war within a war’ in Syria

Fears of a ‘war within a war’ in Syria

In recent days there have been crucial developments in the U.S. capital. Some of these will have direct effects and some will have indirect effects on Turkish-American ties. 

Let me start with the most imminent one for Turkey. Ever since Donald Trump entered office with his campaign right arm General Mike Flynn in the driving seat of the National Security Council, there were serious considerations at the White House that the Turkey file in the State Department would be removed from the European Bureau and moved to the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau. 

The motivation for such a change came from the fact that in the recent years Turkey has been mostly handled within the context of Syria or Iraq. The idea had supporters at the Pentagon because Turkey, which currently falls under the responsibility area of the U.S. European Command (EUCOM), has been causing a headache for the Central Command (CENTCOM) in their Syria and Iraq operations. 

The State Department is against moving Turkey to the Middle East, as it would complicate the nature of the relationship and send a dismissive message about Turkey’s NATO membership. Although not many in Washington are interested today, this step would also end the U.S. diplomatic tradition of keeping the Turkey and Greece files together. After all, the decision to include the Turkey file in the European Bureau was taken by Henry Kissenger after the Turkish intervention into Northern Cyprus in 1974. 

From what I’ve heard, Ankara was disturbed by the rumors and cautioned the Trump administration to not take any steps to change Turkey’s bureau. The crisis seems to have been averted for the time being and the plans have been put off indefinitely, officials have told me. 

But another development heralds a genuine crisis for Turkey. In the aftermath of Defense Secretary James Mattis’ presentation of a review of the U.S. strategy to fight ISIL, statements from top American commanders have done nothing but confirm that we should expect the U.S. to directly or indirectly continue to arm the YPG, even perhaps deploying attack helicopters in PYD-controlled areas in the campaign to liberate Raqqa. 

President Erdoğan recently reiterated that Turkey would be part of the Raqqa operation “only if its allies are sincere.” The kind of sincerity Turkey expects from the U.S. in excluding the YPG from any operation seems impossible, as a majority of the U.S.-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against ISIL consists of the YPG militants. No surprise, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend felt the urge the other day to stress that the YPG/PYD “does not pose a threat to Turkey,” arguing that in fact they want to have a good working relationship with Turkey.  

Townsend’s words are a reflection of U.S. concerns over a possible major military confrontation between Turkish forces and YPG militants on Syrian soil. At a panel discussion in Washington earlier this week, a senior military advisor at the State Department, Colonel Rich Outzen, confirmed the U.S.’s fear of another “war within a war” after the fall of Raqqa. He argued that the way to avoid such a catastrophe lies in Ankara’s possible return to political discussions with the PYD, just as it did back in 2012 and 2013.
‘You don’t make peace with your friends; you make peace with your enemies. I hope there will be a political process with the YPG/PYD, which Turkey today sees as a threat. The Syrian war distorted the peace process in Turkey. This was collateral damage. There will need to be a return to a political process so they become a legitimate part of a post-war structure,” said Outzen. It was particularly interesting to hear these remarks at a panel organized by the Turkish Heritage Organization, a pro-Justice and Development Party (AKP) think tank. 

The anti-Turkey sentiment in the U.S. bureaucracy has not faded just because Barack Obama has left the White House. Most people holding key positions in the Trump administration have little or no sympathy with Turkish positions. What’s more, even the friends of Turkey – like Rich Outzen – encourage Ankara to return to a political dialogue with the Kurds. I suspect we will hear more of this after the referendum in Turkey.