Syria will test Turkey’s ‘strategic partnership’ with the US

Syria will test Turkey’s ‘strategic partnership’ with the US

Turkey’s priorities in Syria have shifted from seeing the end of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to preventing Kurdish aspirations in that country, and fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has made it clear that unsavory as the idea still is, Ankara acknowledges now that al-Assad will have to be part of any solution.

Reports of clashes in Al-Hasakah between the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the umbrella organization of the Syrian Kurds, and Syrian regime forces have also fed speculation that the day may not be far when Ankara and Damascus cooperate to keep the Kurds at bay.

As for ISIL, Ankara has clearly decided to take the fight to this group following its latest atrocity in southern Gaziantep. All the signs are that Turkey is taking this group much more seriously than it did initially, when its rather simplistic argument was “get rid of al-Assad and ISIL will disappear automatically.”

It is a matter of speculation as to whether Ankara sees the PYD or ISIL as the greater threat today. It all depends on where you look from. The fact is that ISIL has drawn Turkey into Syria, where the Turkish military is actively engaging this group in the city of Jarablus just across the Turkish border. 

Turkey is reportedly coordinating this operation with the U.S. It all looks smooth on the surface but there are problems involved in this new step by Ankara which could result in new tensions with Washington.

The U.S. is no doubt aware that Turkey’s operation in Jarablus has a dual purpose: It puts Turkey firmly in the anti-ISIL camp. It also signals to Washington however that Turkey is not going to allow the Kurds to take over this city, the way they are doing in Manbij with U.S. support.

Turkey is also underscoring its determination to prevent the Kurds from establishing a contiguous “Kurdish corridor” along its borders. Put another way, Turkey and the U.S. may appear to be allies against ISIL, but they are rivals when it comes to the Syrian Kurds. 

There is a serious crisis of confidence between them in this regard. Washington may be worried about Turkey’s motives in Jarablus, but Ankara is convinced the U.S. is helping the Kurds carve out a U.S.-friendly region for themselves in Syria.

 As matters stand, every country involved in Syria has its own agenda. Turkey clearly decided it could not stand aside anymore without pushing its agenda, especially after the reconciliation with Russia strengthened its hand. 

Having made up with Ankara and seeing al-Assad beginning to confront the Kurds, it is clear that Kurdish aspirations are not a priority for Moscow. Iran is also close to Turkey with regard to the Syrian Kurds, which is another factor strengthening Ankara’s hand against Washington. 

The situation that is developing shows that Washington will have to consider its next steps very carefully in order to not push Turkey into the welcoming arms of the Russian-Iranian camp in the Syrian crisis. Now that Ankara has overcome its al-Assad phobia, this can happen much more easily. In short, Washington must beware of simplistic formulas and assumptions – of the kind we saw in the past in Iraq - that will not hold. 
Like Russia and Iran, Turkey wants Syria’s territorial integrity to be preserved and says it will accept a settlement plan which proposes the establishment of a government which is above ethnic, religious or sectarian affiliations. In other words, it will have to be a non-partisan, secular government. 

This puts Ankara finally on the right side of the Syrian equation, despite its past mistakes and miscalculations regarding this crisis. Many western analysts still harp on about Turkish assistance to radical Islamists in Syria. The matter has gotten much more complicated than that though.

This article was written as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was just setting foot in Turkey for one of the most crucial rounds of talks with Washington’s “strategic partner.” Developments in Syria will test the limits of this “strategic partnership.”