Tough choices ahead for Turkey in Syrian theater

Tough choices ahead for Turkey in Syrian theater

While Turkish-American relations have been largely put on hold at the political level following U.S. sanctions that were imposed last month by President Donald Trump to punish Ankara for the continued detention of pastor Andrew Brunson, both sides did a relatively good job in keeping “military to military relations” remote from the stalemate. Although it became evident that the implementation of the Manbij road map was lagging behind Turkey’s expectations, Ankara – at least publicly – did not make a big fuss until recently. 

Then came a curious statement from a Pentagon spokesperson this week, raising questions whether the United States would be backtracking from its commitments that were outlined in the road map. “The combined patrols of U.S. and Turkish forces are not going to take place in the city center. The Turks are not going to come to Manbij for the foreseeable future,” said Pentagon’s Eric Pahon in response to my question on the matter.

Turks insist Pahon’s statement is not in line with the road map. Although the text of the road map was never revealed to the public, State Department officials had confirmed on occasions that combined patrols in Manbij are part of the agreement. However, specific locations for combined patrols were not laid out unequivocally. Pahon’s statement is a clear indication that the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) will try to keep Turkish troops on the outskirts of the city. Though if they do not let any Turks into the city, who will confirm whether the affiliates of the YPG have left the ranks of the Manbij Military Council is a mystery.

All of these open questions hint that the gap between how Ankara and Washington interpret the Manbij road map might become painfully visible in the coming days. Moreover, the U.S. using urgency in Idlib as an excuse for slight change of plans in Manbij is not totally inconceivable either, given its record for flip-flops in Syria.

In the meantime, the two countries might encounter further friction in the Syrian theater as Washington enters a period of greater expectations from Turkey in eradication of Iranian proxies. Now that the fight against ISIL is coming to an end, the U.S. is shifting focus on Iranian influence to reset the narrative for staying engaged in Syria for longer. The U.S. pressure to take a tough stance against the malign behavior of its neighbor will probably make Ankara increasingly nervous.

Different political plans for post-conflict Syria might also increase the friction between the two capitals, if the recent efforts to re-vitalize the U.N.-led Geneva process become successful. A strong sign in that direction came in the last round of talks in Geneva this week where the U.S. delegation presented its framework for resolution of the Syrian crisis in Small Group’s gathering with U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura following his two-day meetings with the guarantors of the Astana process, namely Turkey, Russia and Iran.

The U.S. delegation, headed by Special Representative for Syria Ambassador James Jeffrey and his deputy Joel Rayburn, presented a set of guidelines on how to proceed with constitutional reform and elections in Syria. They made clear that they want the U.N. to incorporate all Syrian political forces needed to effect and implement constitutional reform and U.N.-supervised elections, particularly the Syrian government and representatives from northeast Syria.

The U.S. non-paper also included steps for changing the fundamentals of governance in Syria by modifying the president’s authorities to achieve greater balance of powers and guarantees of independence for other central and regional institutions of government. “Authority should be explicitly devolved and decentralized including on a regional basis,” the document said.

There was no explicit mention of Syrian Kurds, however, the only region which was specifically pointed at was “northeast Syria,” where there has been a de-facto self-rule established by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate PYD.

To say the least, with their position in Geneva, Americans made clear that they did not exclude a transition with Bashar al-Assad in power and some form of regional autonomy to the Kurds. Although there is little hope that the Geneva process will bare fruits this time, it will expose top players’ hands at this crucial moment. Tough choices await Turkey.