For much of the Syrian civil war the United States has been walking one particularly fine line.
It’s the one between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds. For the US, Turkey is a problematic but crucial NATO ally and a bridge between Europe and the East. The Syrian Kurds, meanwhile, have proved to be the only effective fighting force inside Syria against the so-called Islamic State – but Turkey fears them.
This week the US had to choose, and the decision wasn’t even close.
Like a suitor letting one side down gently, the US in effect told the Syrian Kurds, we do love you, but we love and need Turkey much more.
Vice President Joe Biden was hastily dispatched to Turkey on Wednesday to reassure Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the US’s undivided support. That includes support for Turkey’s first-ever incursion into Syrian territory this week.
Turkey’s objective: to rout the terrorists it accuses of carrying out attacks inside Turkey, but also to head off any attempt by Syrian Kurds to plant their flag along the border.
In a further show of support for Turkey, Mr. Biden warned the Syrian Kurds in no uncertain terms that the US would not tolerate any effort to turn Kurdish advances against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, into an autonomous Kurdish entity along the Syrian-Turkish border.
The Kurdish militia fighters of the US-backed and -armed YPG appear to have gotten the message. In tacit acknowledgment of US leverage, the Syrian Kurds on Thursday pulled back from territory along the border that they had seized from the Islamic State, which was of particular concern to Turkey.
The Turkish government, which is wary of the YPG’s links to Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, demanded Thursday that the Syrian Kurds withdraw farther, to east of the Euphrates River.
Broader concern about US-Turkey ties
Biden’s balancing act this week reflects not just US concerns over the repercussions of the battle against the Islamic State but broader worries about the direction of relations with Turkey and its long-term geopolitical orientation, regional analysts say.
“I don’t know how many alarm bells were ringing in the White House, whether it was one, two, three, or all four, but clearly they realize now that a relationship so crucial to US security doctrine for the past 70 years is in trouble,” says John Hannah, a former deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration and now a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
“We have a deep interest in stabilizing the relationship and putting a floor underneath it,” he adds, “and that’s what Biden’s salvage operation was about.”
US relations with Turkey have been testy over Turkey’s refusal to fully engage in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State. It took months of intense diplomatic pressure from the US last year for Turkey to finally allow the US to use NATO’s Incirlik air base in southern Turkey to launch air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria.
But rocky relations sank to new depths in the wake of the attempted coup against Mr. Erdogan’s government in July. There have been Turkish accusations of US backing for the man the Turks accuse of masterminding the coup, the cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
Biden was emphatic in his support for Turkish “democracy” in his public comments. And in what also appeared to mitigate the intense anti-American sentiments that have swept Turkey since the failed coup, Biden was effusive in his praise for the Turkish people’s “heroic” defense of their democracy in the coup’s aftermath.
Just how far those soothing words will have gone in reversing the “free fall” in US-Turkish relations remains to be seen, Mr. Hannah says. “Erdogan is a difficult character with objectives in Turkey that in many cases remain quite at odds with US interests,” he says.
Uncertain future for Syrian Kurds
Where this leaves the Syrian Kurds is unclear, but regional analysts are wondering if the population’s day in the sun is over.
“For a while there, things were going great for them. Not only did they have the US on their side but Russia and Iran seemed to be helping them as well,” says Amberin Zaman, a Turkish journalist and public policy fellow at the Wilson Center’s Global Europe Program in Washington.
But now, she notes that Turkey is not just talking to the US again but is mending fences with Russia and Iran as well, “and that’s squeezing them.”
A heady YPG may also have overstepped its bounds during an operation earlier this month, Ms. Zaman says.
“Turkey was guaranteed by the US that once the earlier operation [to take the strategic border-area town of Manbij] was complete, the YPG would withdraw,“ she says. “But instead the YPG continued its provocative movement farther north” toward Turkey.
“That,” she adds, “put the US in the position of the ally that doesn’t keep its promises.”
For the Syrian Kurds, much will now depend on Turkey’s next steps. “Is Turkey now in Syria for the long haul?” Zaman asks.
Whatever the case, the Kurdish question will remain thorny for US-Turkish relations, she adds.
“The Kurds aren’t going to just pick up and disappear,” she says. “For Turkey, this is now a transnational problem.”
Moreover, YPG remains a valuable asset against both the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, so Washington is unlikely to forsake it completely.
“If the incursion turns into a broader assault against the Kurds that depletes them as a critical fighting force against” the Islamic State, says Hannah, “that could certainly lead to a renewal of serious tensions in Turkish-US relations.”