‘Will air strikes alter US-Turkey relations?’

‘Will air strikes alter US-Turkey relations?’

Megan Gisclon*
The April 7 air strikes on a regime-controlled air base outside Homs, Syria, perpetuated by the United States, have managed to achieve what was seemingly unattainable—a show of international and domestic unity behind the Donald Trump administration. Voices from around the globe, as well as from both Trump’s critics and back-scratchers at home, have endorsed the U.S. president’s surprising show of force in response to the chemical attack carried out by the Syrian regime in Khan Sheikhun earlier last week. 

However, in the U.S.’s first direct blow in response to the Bashar al-Assad regime, the air strikes have also perplexed the international community, which has yet to see the Trump administration develop a clear stance on Syria. There are several questions lingering on everyone’s mind. What does this mean for the world and Syria? Does this signal a new U.S. policy in the Middle East? 

In Turkey, officials and the public have asked whether the air strikes will change not only the nature of the conflict but also the U.S.-Turkish relationship. Will this lead to further U.S. action in Syria that Turkey can also come to terms with? There are three major factors to examine in answer.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has previously declared that Turkey will “do its part” if the U.S. is ready to move forward with military action in Syria. In the aftermath of the strikes, Turkish officials, and similarly U.S. Senator John McCain, have echoed the need for a no-fly zone, working with the Free Syrian Army, and establishing safe zones in northern Syria. As Trump reportedly ordered the strikes in response to seeing the gassing of children broadcast on television, Turkey can only hope that Trump will stumble upon similar images that will spur him into continued action. Seeing that the administration has declared the strikes as a “limited,” “direct” response, Turkey will likely wait in vain. 

Friday’s air strikes provided a much-anticipated point of common ground between the U.S. and Turkey: that is, they were removed from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers as a terrorist organization and the U.S. as an ally. If the U.S. continues to target al-Assad’s critical bases, this could open a pathway for U.S.-Turkish cooperation—albeit a limited one. Conditions on the ground in northern Syria are unlikely to change, implying that the YPG and the U.S. will continue to work together now into the post-ISIS setting both east and west of the Euphrates.

Although opponents and proponents of the Trump administration alike have announced their support of the air strikes as an “appropriate” response and “show of strength” in the face of the evils of the al-Assad regime, there is an ongoing debate within the U.S. over whether the air strikes are legal, i.e., whether such military actions should require congressional approval, as well as Trump’s broader Syria strategy. Leading House Democrat Nancy Pelosi has called for Speaker Paul Ryan to immediately call Congress back into session in order to debate the Authorization of the Use of Military Force, which provided the executive considerable military power following 9/11. This debate may change the power that the American presidency has to conduct operations in Syria. This can slow down attacks and Trump’s strategic decisions—a check on the president’s power that may aggravate Ankara’s desire for quick action.

Friday’s air strikes have clearly brought to light the need for the Trump administration to develop a broader Syria strategy. However, analyzing the situation on the ground as well as the influence of the U.S. Congress, the ultimate conclusion remains that the air strikes will provide little to no impetus for the U.S. to steer from its predetermined course in Syria, namely to destroy ISIS and contain Iran. For one air strike does not make a war.

*Megan Gisclon is the managing editor of the Istanbul Policy Center.