A little more than a week after Turkey launched “Operation Olive Branch” in the Afrin district of northwestern Syria, two retired American and Turkish military officials offered insights into how the operation could affect the more than six-decade-old NATO alliance between Washington and Ankara.
Dr. Nilsu Goren, Program Director at the Turkish Coalition of America, moderated the discussion between Gen. (Ret.) James T. Conway and Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Ahmet Bertan Nogaylaroglu at a panel organized by Turkish Heritage Organization at the National Press Club on January 31st.
“What makes this event even more timely is the fact that on February 18th we are going to be celebrating the 66th anniversary of Turkey’s accession to the NATO alliance,” Goren told the audience. “[O]ver the years, we have seen many instances where Turkey and [the] U.S. have cooperated under the NATO umbrella, and we also know that NATO membership has been part of Turkey’s core identity.”
The current tensions between Washington and Ankara – primarily over the conflict in Syria – are “not NATO-related” but instead due solely to problems in U.S.-Turkey relations, according to Maj. Gen. Nogaylaroglu, who is the Deputy Chairman of the Board of Directors of Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) and previously served as the Armed Forces Attache at the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C.
“We are still working with NATO; there is no problem behind the door because NATO is us,” the Major General said. “NATO is not [a] different organization. NATO is us, together. Our people are there; our generals are...working there; and the decision-making process goes through our people.”
According to Gen. Conway, who served as the 34th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, shared membership in the NATO alliance allowed the militaries of both the U.S. and Turkey to cooperate as far back as 1950, during the Korean War. Gen. Conway said that throughout Ankara’s participation in the alliance to date, “[w]e’ve seen Turkey very involved with NATO out of area operations which not all the NATO countries are willing to undertake.”
Differences over Syria policy are threatening the U.S.-Turkey alliance
Regardless of the long, constructive history the U.S. and Turkey have shared as NATO allies, both retired military officials warned of a grim future if Washington and Ankara cannot resolve their differences over Syria.
According to Maj. Gen. Nogaylaroglu, the U.S. is “losing Turkey” because it won’t work with Ankara in Syria and instead is supporting the YPG in order to defeat ISIS.
“We [Turkey and the U.S.] are working together [for decades]. We fight [with] each other shoulder [to] shoulder,” Maj. Gen. Nogaylaroglu said. “Why are you [the U.S.] trying to reach your strategic interests through [the YPG]?”
“There is concern that Turkey is drifting away from NATO, perhaps, in a way that we don’t like to see, because they are such a vital part of it,” Gen. Conway told the audience. “I think the larger question becomes, ‘How do we prevent that? How do we make sure that we don’t drive them away through improper commentary or sending signals that are just not intended to be?’”
According to Gen. Conway, American and Turkish interests in Syria are not incompatible, though “the vital national interests of both nations in the region...differ a little bit.”
For the U.S., major interests include defeating ISIS; deterring Iranian expansion; seeing a new government in Damascus that is agreed upon by major powers in the area, including Turkey; and ensuring Israeli security.
For Turkey, the defeat of ISIS is also an interest, as is its desire to see “a threat removed off [its] southern border,” according to Gen. Conway. Additionally, Turkey also wants to see a new government in Damascus, and another major interest is the resolution of the significant refugee crisis resulting from the Syrian conflict.
For Gen. Conway, “there’s a lot of commonality” among these major interests, chief among them the defeat of ISIS.
That’s where the U.S.’ main concern about Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch comes in, as Washington perceives it to be a distraction from the fight against ISIS. “I sense that Turkey and Turkish leadership may now be of the thought that ISIL is gone...I don’t think we’re quite there yet. I think there’s still enough resiliency that we see in that terrorist organization that we’re concerned that there still is more that needs to be done,” Gen. Conway said.
However, according to Maj. Gen. Nogaylaroglu, the YPG is as serious a threat to Turkey as is ISIS, if not more so, due to the former’s ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Maj. Gen. Nogaylaroglu referenced the more than 40,000 civilians and soldiers in Turkey who have lost their lives in the 40 years that the PKK has been engaged in conflict with the Turkish state.
As such, Operation Olive Branch – which targets Kurdish factions in Afrin that are connected with the PKK – is “vital” to Turkey’s security, according to Maj. Gen. Nogaylaroglu.
Gen. Conway said that there is a serious risk of escalation between the two NATO allies, given Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threats to expand Turkey’s operation to Manbij in northeastern Syria, where U.S. troops are present in support of the YPG. As such, the allies need more “eyeball to eyeball” communication to avoid coming to blows.
According to Maj. Gen. Nogaylaroglu, in order to prevent a major escalation of tensions between Washington and Ankara, the U.S. must stop working with the YPG and withdraw its troops from Manbij so Turkey can continue to confront this security threat. Maj. Gen. Nogaylaroglu also said that Turkey is capable of working with the U.S. to achieve its major interests in Syria.
“[I]n spite of the noise at the political level, at the military level, if Turkey wants to take on a larger role...[then] we’ll support you as best we can,” Gen. Conway said.
Despite the fact that he believes that there is a “high possibility” of conflict between Washington and Ankara over the YPG in Syria, Maj. Gen. Nogaylaroglu also has hope that tensions can be resolved. “Fifty, sixty years we [Turkey and the U.S.] are working together. We will find a solution.”