Since mid-2014, America’s main enemy in Syria and Iraq has been the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
ISIL is down for the count in both countries, but U.S. decision-makers now face a new challenge: Washington’s long-time NATO ally, Turkey, is fighting with the U.S. military’s key local ally in its fight against ISIL — the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — in Syria. And, as the fall of the Kurdish-majority province of Afrinin mid-March to the Free Syrian Army shows, Turkey seems to be winning. Ankara is now signaling its intentions to target the YPG in other parts of Syria, including areas where the United States has a military presence, often alongside the YPG.
These developments put the United States in a precarious situation. The United States has to simultaneously manage its relations with both Turkey, its NATO ally, and YPG, its chief local partner in the fight against ISIL, while making sure that neither ISIL nor al-Qaeda re-emerge as a potent menace in Syria. The United States also declared its intentions to curb the influence of Iran, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chief ally, and presumably has strong incentives to prevent Russia, another Assad ally, from entrenching its presence in Syria. Complicating the matters further, President Donald Trump has highlighted his intentions to “leave Syria” for good, and sooner rather than later. This all presents the United States with a strategic deadlock.
In the worst-case scenario, the conflict between Turkey and the YPG expands to the entirety of northern Syria, perhaps even triggering a military confrontation between Turkey and the United States, most likely inadvertently. Note that Turkey is not pulling its punches when it comes to threatening Western states over their support for the YPG: Most recently, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly stated that France would become a “target” if they continue to support the group. Ankara has also signaled that it may leverage ethnic tensions between the Kurds and Arabs to its advantage. A Syria-wide ethnic conflict will likely serve the Assad regime, which is already the biggest winner of the civil war. Under such circumstances, the influence of Russia in the region will skyrocket and Iran will take advantage of the chaos to further its interests in Syria. Syria may once again be ripe for jihadist groups like ISIL to take root and use control of territory to launch terrorist attacks in the West and fuel regional instability.
In the wake of Turkey’s incursions into Afrin, the United States has four options: strategic procrastination; favoring Turkey over the YPG either directly, or indirectly by withdrawing from Syria entirely; favoring the YPG over Turkey; or playing an active role to seek reconciliation between Turkey and the YPG. None is perfect, and all would come with considerable costs and risks attached. Washington will soon have to make a decision. At this stage, policymakers must assess the the benefits and side effects of each option. Such assessment, in turn, requires an examination of both Turkey’s and the YPG’s objectives.
Background: What Turkey and the YPG Really Want
Turkey’s Syria strategy between the outbreak of the civil war in 2011 and mid-2016 could be defined in terms of over ambition — prioritizing toppling the Assad regime above other concerns. In order to accomplish its goal, Ankara supported numerous anti-Assad elements in Syria, most notably the Free Syrian Army. Their near-obsession with the Syrian president blinded Turkish decision-makers to the fear and panic the rise of ISIL instigated in the Western world, especially in the United States. For example, Washington approached Ankara to act as the leading local fighting force against ISIL in 2014. However, Ankara was not receptive to the idea, and might have assumed that further turbulence in Syria, regardless of its source, would contribute to its objective by further weakening the Assad regime.
Reluctance to take the lead against ISIL was a strategic miscalculation of tremendous proportions. First, with its own Islamist leanings, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Erdogan, eventually gained a reputation for turning a blind eye to ISIL, if not directly colluding with it. The fact that Ankara was effectively collaborating with al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria during this period also speaks volumes about Turkey’s calculations during this period and colored allies’ decisions. Second, Ankara’s initial reluctance triggered a process that eventually facilitated the rise of the YPG. Desperate to find a capable and willing local ally, and reluctant to commit combat troops in the region, the United States turned to the YPG. When the YPG, with air support from the United States, proved itself a potent fighting force during the Battle of Kobane in the second half of 2014, Washington decided to support and empower the Kurdish militant group in its war on ISIL over strong objections from Erdogan.
As of 2016, the YPG had made considerable territorial gains in northern Syria at the expense of ISIL. By the summer, the YPG had come very close to establishing a Kurdish corridor in northern Syria. Turkish decision-makers went through a major reassessment of their priorities in Syria. The Assad regime proved infinitely more resilient than Ankara had initially hoped, and the YPG — which Turkey sees as another name for its arch-nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — posed the major threat. If the Kurdish militant group actually linked up its territories with Afrin, Turkey’s Syrian border would be controlled by an implacably hostile foe. In Ankara’s eyes, if the YPG crossed to the west of the Euphrates, where the Kurds are not a majority by any meaningful criteria, it would have crossed a red line. So, when the YPG crossed the river and captured the strategic city of Manbij from ISIL, alarm bells started to ring in Ankara.
In August 2016, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield, preventing the YPG from linking up its territories with the help of the Free Syrian Army. From that point onward, Afrin became a strategic hostage of Turkey: an isolated enclave where the United States did not have any presence. For more than a year, Ankara made both veiled and open threats, insisting that the YPG should withdraw to the east of Euphrates River. Put differently, Turkey placed pressure on Afrin, not for the sake of Afrin per se, but to compel the YPG to leave Manbij and move its operations to the east of Euphrates, or to pressure the United States to get the YPG to do so. While the YPG claimed that it “left” Manbij and transferred control to the Manbij Military Council, Ankara refused to recognize the council as a distinct structure and continued its threats.
Two dynamics delayed Turkey’s move into Afrin. First, until mid-2017, ISIL still controlled territory, with the YPG doing much of the fighting against the jihadi group. It is likely that Turkey preferred to wait until ISIL lost all its territory in Syria. Second, and more importantly, Ankara wanted a green light from Russia, whose military presence in northwestern Syria makes Russian consent a must for Turkey. In January 2018, after securing Russian consent, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch.
The fighting lasted for about two months and took place mostly in the rural areas and the outskirts of Afrin. Many spectators predicted, at best, a Pyrrhic victory for Turkey, some going to such lengths as to frame Afrin as Turkey’s “Vietnam.” Others, including yours truly, pointed toward the risk of a bloody urban battle in Afrin city. The fall of the city without urban fighting on March 18, proved such analysts wrong, at least for the time being. In Afrin, Turkey found a major victory, crushing the myth of YPG invincibility. Without direct U.S. assistance, the YPG failed to hold ground even in rural areas, where it had been preparing a defense against potential Turkish incursion for years, and paid a dear cost. Claims of YPG losses range from 1,000 to 3,000. Armed with confidence, Turkey is turning its attention to central-northern Syria, asking the YPG to withdraw to the east of Euphrates. If YPG refuses and the Turkish military advances against them, Ankara will not want to limit its objectives to Manbij and may take its fight with the YPG to the east of Euphrates.
The YPG’s objectives also evolved during the course of the Syrian civil war. While Turkey was compelled to curb the scope of its objectives — from the rather “unlimited” aim of regime change to relatively limited aim of preventing the rise of the YPG — the YPG became more and more ambitious during the civil war. For example, while it has been portrayed as the most potent fighting force in the war against ISIL from 2014 onward, the YPG was one of the militarily weakest actors at the dawn of the civil war. In fact, Assad initially did not see the YPG as a threat to his regime and withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas of Syria without a fight around 2011. The YPG and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party capitalized on Assad’s absence in the Kurdish majority areas, but also had to absorb the full brunt of attacks from jihadi groups, most notably ISIL, literally fighting for their lives with limited resources and experience.
The YPG also faced a major challenge: unlike the territorially unified Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, the three Kurdish in Syria cantons were separated from each other, distributed roughly in the western, central, and eastern parts of northern Syria. The lack of a territorially contiguous area to call their own, further exposed them to the threat from ISIL. As of 2014, the Syrian Kurds were facing a real threat of genocide at the hands of ISIL.
The tide changed with the Battle of Kobane in mid-2014. The city of Kobane lies at the heart of the central Syrian Kurdish canton, located on the Turkish-Syrian border. Kobane was initially surrounded by ISIL forces, which at one point came close to wiping out YPG in the city. Following its “Assad first” posture, and presumably not all that displeased that ISIL was fighting a group it viewed as essentially the same as the PKK, Ankara did not aid the YPG in its fight. Then, at the YPG’s darkest hour, the United States intervened, providing air support as well as weapons and supplies (via an airdrop), much to the chagrin of Turkey. Consequently, the YPG gave ISIL their first major battlefield defeat. Victory in Kobane and Turkish unreliability convinced the United States that the Kurdish militant group was its most willing and capable local ally in the fight against ISIL.
Armed with U.S. support, the YPG’s objectives shifted from survival to security to expansion. The YPG enjoyed a great advantage: The areas it needed to establish a territorially contiguous sphere of influence, inhabited by mostly ethnic Arabs, were under ISIL control. This dynamic allowed the YPG to capture territory from ISIL as the United States, its benefactor, preferred, while at the same time linking up the three Kurdish-majority cantons. The YPG paid a considerable blood price in its war with ISIL, but eventually established a territorially contiguous area of control in the east of the Euphrates by 2016. Afrin, in the northwestern edge of Syria, however, remained isolated and separated from the “main” YPG-controlled territories.
Then came the YPG offensive on Manbij and incursions to the west of Euphrates. From a strategic perspective, taking Manbij from ISIL was of crucial importance: The city was the last stronghold of ISIL in the northern edge of Syria, and a vital supply hub for the group. While Turkey protested, YPG ousted ISIL from the city in the summer of 2016. As highlighted above, the YPG’s reluctance to withdraw from the area triggered Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield. However, the operation did not curb YPG’s ambitions. For example, in 2017, a chief spokesperson for the federalism project for the so-called Democratic Federation of North Syria, which is dominated by the Democratic Union Party, declared that “arriving at the Mediterranean Sea is in [our] project for northern Syria.” Such statements were exceptionally worrying for as it meant that the party and the YPG would either expand approximately 60 miles into Turkish territory or into the parts of rebel or regime controlled territory in Western Syria where the Kurds do not constitute a majority.
The evolution of the YPG’s aims, in this context, can be explained by three factors. First, armed with a series of victories against ISIL, YPG likely became a little too confident in its own military prowess, disregarding the fact that fighting a regular army and its local, Syrian allies without U.S. close air support would be categorically different from fighting a non-state group like ISIL with such support. Second, the YPG likely counted on U.S. diplomatic efforts, as well as public outcry from other Western countries, to prevent Turkey from directly targeting the group in Syria. Third, considering that the Kremlin has cooperated closely with the Syrian Kurdish militia in the past, the YPG might have assumed that Russia, given Turkey’s enmity toward its ally, the Assad regime, would be reluctant to consent to a Turkish operation in northern Syria.
As the recent two months of fighting in Afrin decisively showed, these assumptions were all misplaced. Having withdrawn from Afrin city, the YPG has declared that it will be switching to a strategy of “hit and run” operations and insurgency. Having paid a significant cost for its territorial gains, the YPG will be reluctant to let go west of the Euphrates, especially in Manjib. Manbij, however, is a different story from Afrin. U.S. forces were not in Afrin, but they are in Manbij. Furthermore, U.S. Central Command Chief General Joseph Votel recently declared that U.S. forces would not leave if Turkey makes a move on the city. However, with reports that Trump is pushing for a military withdrawal, we cannot be sure. Regardless, with Afrin’s fall, Turkey must be looking hungrily at Manbij. This will soon put the United States between a rock and dynamite.
Four Strategic Options for the United States
The first option on Washington’s unpalatable menu is what can be called “strategic procrastination,” that is, doing little to address the crisis head on, while hoping that, in time, the problems between Turkey and YPG will somehow sort themselves out. Paradoxically, this is the easiest path to take in the short term, but will prove to be the worst in the long run. The problems between the two actors will not sort themselves out, especially in the midst of a conflict that each party increasingly frames as an “existential struggle.” Through strategic procrastination, the United States can buy some time by occasionally appeasing one party or another, but will not be able to prevent escalation.
Putting a band aid on the crisis through occasional concessions to one party or the other will not work. The crisis has evolved into a stage where there are no any cheap and fast solutions. There does not seem to be a middle ground to hold. In the most likely scenario, strategic procrastination will not prevent the escalation of the Turkish-YPG conflict in the long run, and both parties will blame the United States for “not being on their side” and “selling out its ally.”
The second option, in this context, would be to prefer Turkey over the YPG. It could begin with an agreement over Manbij (in favor of Turkey) and require the United States to pull the plug on its support for YPG. Beyond that, the United States can take one of two paths. It could directly support Turkey at the expense of the YPG, formally acknowledging the relationship between the YPG and the PKK. Or, it could simply stop supporting and providing cover for the YPG, leaving the group to the mercy of Turkey.
The benefits to taking Turkey’s side would be threefold. First, it would dampen the risk that the Syrian civil war may worsen. Second, it would help reestablish the Turkish-U.S. alliance, which has been deteriorating for years. Third, Washington might be able to convince Ankara to finally act as a motivated and capable partner in Syria, either against ISIL or to undermine Iranian influence in the country. As a result, this course of action would make it easier for the United States to pull out of Syria entirely, which Trump seems to want. A “friendly” Turkey can partially fill the void such a departure would create in Syria without significantly diverting from U.S. interests.
However, the “Turkey first” option would come with three costs. First, if the United States abandons the YPG, gains made against ISIL in the past years will be at risk unless Washington receives credible assurances from Ankara that it will finally act as the chief anti-ISIL ground force in Syria. Second, choosing Turkey over the YPG will fuel anti-Americanism among the Kurds in the region, and hurt Washington’s reputation as a reliable patron. Third, the YPG will try to partner up with Russia, and even Iran.
What if the United States decides to prefer the YPG to Turkey? This path, especially in light of deteriorating relations between Ankara and Washington as well as the rising unpopularity of the Turkish president in the West, appears to be an attractive to some.
Operationalizing this strategy would require both diplomatic and military measures, including credible “red lines” to prevent further Turkish military action against the YPG. At the diplomatic level, Washington will have to signal to Ankara that any further military action against the YPG will trigger a strong reaction from the United States, including but not limited to economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. At the operational level, Washington will have to commit American forces in limited numbers to YPG-controlled areas indefinitely, whose main function would be to act as “trip wires” to prevent Turkish military engagement with YPG forces. Without these operators, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to credibly deter Turkey from targeting the YPG.
Beyond diplomatic and operational measures, the United States will have make sure that the YPG’s increasing dominance does not trigger Arab resentment in the region. In the past, partially to alleviate Turkish concerns, the United States spearheaded the rebranding of YPG forces, a process that entailed incorporation of Arab fighters into YPG and naming the resulting military forces the Syrian Democratic Forces. However, the YPG still remains the dominant actor within this force. If the United States decides to commit to the YPG, it should take measures to assure that the Syrian Democratic Forces become more representative not only in ethnic composition, but also regarding decision-making. To be clear, such a move will not alleviate Turkish concerns. In fact, U.S. insistence that the Syrian Democratic Forces and the YPG are distinct organizations only infuriated Turkish decision-makers, who countered that Syrian Democratic Forces are still the YPG (and, in fact, PKK) with a different name. The main purpose of democratizing the Syrian Democratic Forces would be to keep a lid on potential resentment from Arabs living in Kurdish-controlled areas. If unchecked, the YPG’s dominance in Arab-majority areas could lead to a backlash from ethnic Arabs, which would be a recipe for regional instability in the long run.
Three major benefits would follow from a “YPG first” option. First, since U.S. support has been contingent on the YPG’s performance against ISIL, YPG leaders will have strong incentives to finish off ISIL in Syria for good, and to make sure that the jihadist group does not make a comeback in any shape or form. Second, the United States will be able to part ways with Turkey, an ally many in Washington deem unreliable, increasingly authoritarian, and unworthy. Finally, the YPG’s survival in the region will depend on continuous U.S. support, a dependency that will render the group an agreeable and cooperative ally.
This option, however, will come with four costs. First, as mentioned above, the United States will not only lose Turkey, but Ankara will also turn against United States, emerging as a regional rival and partnering with other American adversaries to counter U.S. interests. Second, it will be difficult for the United States to withdraw from Syria anytime soon. As the Turkish assault on Afrin clearly established, without direct American support, the YPG barely stands a chance against a regular army. The group will be perennially vulnerable and its very survival will be dependent on direct U.S. military support. Third, the YPG might be a strategic liability for the United States in the long run and drag the United States into regional conflicts where American interests are not at stake. Fourth, unless managed properly, ethnic tensions in the region can escalate and may even trigger excessive anti-Americanism among some local and regional actors, who may portray U.S. efforts to empower the YPG as an effort to create a “new Israel” in the Middle East.
The final strategic option for the United States is to actively seek reconciliation between Turkey and the YPG. Arguably, this option is the most difficult to realize in the short run, but also the one that would yield the greatest benefits for Washington in the long run. A permanent reconciliation, in turn, can be operationalized in two ways: either through a negotiated settlement between Turkey and the YPG, or a peace process between Turkey and the PKK.
A limited reconciliation strategy — actively seeking a negotiated settlement between Turkey and the YPG — would be easier to operationalize than a peaceful solution to the Turkish-PKK conflict. Such a limited strategy would likely entail finding an agreeable common ground between what the YPG is willing to concede and what assurances Turkey is willing to accept. For example, both Turkey and the YPG, in theory, can agree to the Euphrates River as a boundary for the Syrian Kurdish group’s sphere of influence.
There would be two problems associated with such a limited solution. First, while the United States has considerable leverage over the YPG, the deteriorating relations between Washington and Ankara limits the leverage the former can credibly exercise over the latter. To complicate matters, Turkey may be more difficult to appease in the wake of its victory in Afrin. Second, this option does not address the root causes of the conflict between Turkey and the YPG: Turkey’s “Kurdish Question” and the 40-year old war between Turkey and the PKK. Without a peaceful solution to the Turkish-PKK conflict, we can at best hope for a cold war between the two actors — a state of mutual hostility, but that will not translate into open warfare. Regardless, U.S. policymakers would be well-advised to consider this option, which is not ideal, but is still preferable to a real war.
A more extensive reconciliation between Turkey and the YPG, in turn, requires a peaceful solution to the conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK. A peaceful solution to Turkey’s own Kurdish question may strike many spectators as improbable. However, there is reason to take this option seriously. Note that both Turkey and the PKK signaled clear intentions to end the conflict in the past. Between 2013 and 2015, Turkey and PKK initiated what is referred to as the “solution process.” During this first solution process, Turkey and the PKK did not benefit from the presence of a third-party mediator. While initiating a second solution process in 2018 would be more difficult for both actors than it was in 2013, the United States can weigh in to assist them through the negotiations.
Critics may point out to two potential impediments. First, while feasible in 2013, it may now be too late for a second solution process. While it is tempting to give into snapshot analyses of the strategic situation at the moment, there is a benefit to delineating between what is difficult and what is impossible. Arguably, the United States can build on its leverage over both actors, assuring that they can portray the outcome as success, if not a decisive victory, to their respective domestic audiences. This will be a difficult task for the United States, but it still remains a possibility.
A second potential impediment, critics may argue, is Erdogan, whose nationalistic rhetoric has soared following the breakdown of the solution process in 2015. What critics forget, however, is the fact that Erdogan was the first, and so far only, Turkish political leader who proved himself to be willing to push forward a peaceful solution to the Turkish-PKK conflict, despite the fact that nationalists, most notably the leader of the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) Develet Bahceli, and secularists alike were calling him a “traitor” at the time. This observation does not suggest Erdogan is inherently in favor of a solution process. It simply suggests that, as far as domestic politics are concerned, Erdogan is a realist and pragmatist who has a gift for legitimizing dramatic shifts in his posture in the eyes of his supporters. Riding on nationalist sentiments for years, and now armed with the victory in Afrin, it would not be easy to convince Erdogan to consider a second solution process, but also not impossible.
The benefits of such extensive reconciliation would be considerable. First, Turkish-YPG reconciliation would near-guarantee long-term stability in northern Syria. Second, the United States could use its leverage, and role as the chief mediator, to convince Turkey take a more active role in the anti-ISIL campaign. Between Turkey and the YPG, ISIL would not have the opportunity to rise again, at least in most of Syria. Third, if, or when, Washington decides to place further pressure on Assad regime and curb Iranian influence in Syria, it can rely on not only the YPG, but also Ankara, where anti-Assad sentiments have long been dominant.
The problems associated with this option are many and go beyond the remit of this essay. However, unlike the other options, the problems lie not with the consequences that would follow from picking this option, but with making sure that the associated strategy is carefully planned and executed with a long-term vision in mind.
In the wake of the Turkish victory in Afrin, the United States will increasingly find itself having to make a choice: procrastinate, choose Turkey over the YPG, prioritize its relationship with YPG at the expense of Turkey, or play an active role in reconciling Turkey and the YPG (or Turkey and the PKK). To be precise, the United States is not merely stuck between a rock and a hard place. It is stuck between a rock and a box full of dynamite, which, if it explodes, can hurt its interests in the region for many years to come, perhaps in irreversible ways.
Trump’s recent statements about leaving Syria “very soon,” in this context, should be read with special attention to the crisis between Turkey and the YPG. Withdrawing from Syria without making a concrete decision over how to approach the crisis will likely create further strategic challenges for the United States, in at least two ways. First, without direct U.S. support, the YPG will most likely be rooted out of its Syrian strongholds by Turkey and its allies. Ankara will still put the blame for Turkish casualties in Syria on Washington’s failure to reassure its NATO ally, while also — paradoxically — presenting the outcome as a victory against both the PKK and the United States. Second, if Washington withdraws from Syria without making sure that it can rely on a capable and motivated local ally to fight ISIL, the jihadist group will most likely take advantage of the void to plan and stage its comeback. Put simply, the United States should make a decision soon, especially if it plans to leave Syria in the near future.