United States walking on eggshells in Syria
At the end of the second week of Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” into Syria’s Afrin to fight the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), tension between the Turks and the Americans continues but in a fairly controlled manner.
The U.S. administration is aware that its chances of convincing the Turks to halt the Afrin offensive without some concessions are slim to non-existent. Indeed, while it struggles to counter the influence of Russia and Iran in the Syrian theater, Washington is not ready to give up on its war-winning allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main component of which is made up of YPG fighters. That is why Washington’s sole priority, for the time being, is preventing scenarios that could lead to Turkish and American soldiers pointing guns at each other.
The common understanding in the U.S. capital is that the Turkish military would not conclude its offensive at least until summer. Many believe that President Tayyip Erdoğan could be getting ready to call a snap general election on the second anniversary of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, which falls on a Sunday this year. This scenario requires a new constitutional change in order to be able to move the election date, since the last year’s referendum determined that a general election must be held on the same day as a presidential election.
The Americans probably think anything is possible if the country in question is Turkey. Turkey-watchers believe the early election scenario is more plausible because it fits into a narrative suggesting that “Operation Olive Branch” is intended for a domestically driven political agenda to consolidate nationalist voters behind President Erdoğan, rather than based on a long-term strategic vision. If a snap election is indeed what Erdoğan has in mind to strengthen his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Americans believe it is also plausible to expect some kind of Turkish military action in spring targeting Manbij, where U.S. Special Forces are continuing to patrol.
The Pentagon views a possible attack by the Turkish Armed Forces against the SDF-controlled Manbij as a nightmare scenario. They are also concerned about losing Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In Syria, Washington has successfully managed to de-conflict, even with Moscow despite a number of occasions in which the U.S. air force was caught in serious confrontation with Russian jets. As for two NATO allies like Turkey and the United States, the mechanisms for de-confliction are institutional and intact - and those mechanisms have been in use since the start of “Operation Olive Branch.”
The Pentagon is concerned that - already offended by the U.S.’s lack of opposition to the Turkish incursion in Afrin - the YPG could start pulling more of its fighters from the fight against ISIL in order to counter the attacks of the Turkish military. Washington’s security apparatus believes that this could potentially destroy its four-year Syria strategy, in which Kurdish willingness to fight the jihadists saved America from putting tens of thousands of boots on the ground. This nightmare scenario, according to the Pentagon, carries major risks, including isolating the U.S. in the region and letting the Kurds drift towards Moscow like other key players in Syria.
That is exactly why most American diplomats who advocate a review of the current U.S. policy on Syria by “taking Turkey’s concerns into account” usually fall onto the weaker side of the equilibrium.
While the Pentagon is focused on the possible on-the-ground conflict zone consequences of a Turkish attack on Manbij, the State Department has deeper concerns. According to diplomats working on the Turkey file, if the nightmare scenario of the Pentagon becomes true and the U.S strategy to fight ISIL in Syria fails then Turkey would be blamed for disrupting the fate of a major U.S. war. It would be rather like the situation in 2003, when the Turkish Parliament voted to refuse permission to U.S. forces who wanted to use Turkish territory to open a northern front against Iraq.
Unfortunately, even if the U.S. manages to prevent the Pentagon’s nightmare scenario, it is not plausible to expect existing resentment in American institutions as well as in American public opinion to fade any time soon.
I have written repeatedly that the U.S. Congress has been championing the “we should punish Turkey” campaign since President Erdoğan’s bodyguards’ violent display against protestors in Washington in May 2017. Congress’ plans to sanction Turkey over the purchase of the Russian S-400 missiles seems to have been deferred for the time being due to President Trump’s general reluctance to push those sanctions and punish Russia for meddling in U.S. elections.
However, to punish Turkey, Congress is currently working on the Magnitsky Act, which allows the U.S. government to sanction foreign government officials implicated in human rights abuses. The priority of the Congress is to sanction certain Turkish officials as responsible for the ongoing detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson and other U.S. nationals, as well as U.S. Consulate staff in Turkey.
So because there is significant potential for new crises on a range other political files with Ankara, the U.S.’s efforts to strike a balance in Syria between Turkey and the Kurds could easily baffle.
At a recent panel organized by the Turkish Heritage Organization, retired U.S. General James Conway said Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are “walking on eggshells,” while describing the dynamics of recent U.S. diplomacy over Afrin. Indeed, Washington is walking on eggshells in Syria and it is impossible for the Americans to get out of this mess without breaking somebody’s eggs.