THO Hosts Teleconference on U.S.-Turkey Tensions Over the YPG In Syria

Distinguished experts discussed how Turkey’s operation in Afrin could impact U.S.-Turkey ties

On January 24, THO hosted a teleconference on “YPG in Syria: Implications for the U.S. and Turkey.”

The teleconference was moderated by THO Executive Director Yenal Kucuker and featured the following speakers:

  • Luke Coffey – Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, The Heritage Foundation
  • Kyle Orton – U.K.-based research fellow and Middle East political analyst

There’s been a breakdown in trust between the U.S. and Turkey

Both Coffey and Orton emphasized that the U.S.’ decision to support the YPG in Syria – despite Turkey’s security concerns – has contributed significantly to a breakdown in trust between Washington and Ankara.

Coffey said that historians will look at this U.S. decision as the “biggest driver” of tensions between the U.S. and Turkey that have brought them to the current low point in their bilateral relationship.

Orton underlined that while this difficult state of affairs will likely continue, it is unlikely that there will be a complete break between the U.S. and Turkey unless something “out of the blue” happens, such as if U.S. troops were to be killed during Turkey’s military operations in Syria.

Turkey’s Afrin operation and its implications for U.S.-Turkey ties

In the context of Turkey’s recently launched Operation Olive Branch against the YPG in the Afrin district of northwestern Syria, Coffey noted that the “flurry” of high-level dialogue between Washington and Ankara shows that the U.S. wants to “make this [current situation in northern Syria] work for everyone.” The problem is that the U.S. can’t make it work for all parties involved.

According to Orton, it seems as if the U.S. is viewing Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch as the “price” for Washington’s continued support the YPG in northeastern Syria. Coffey stated that as long as Turkey’s military action remains limited to targeting PKK-linked militants in Afrin, no one in Washington policy circles will “lose any sleep.”

Coffey emphasized that a more significant concern for the state of the U.S.-Turkey relationship would be if Turkey should choose to target YPG forces in areas where U.S. troops are already present, such as in northeastern Syria. 

Orton said that if the U.S. wishes to “pull back” from northern Syria instead of becoming deeply involved for the long-term, it faces a “binary” choice in which it must choose between either Turkey or the YPG. 

According to Coffey, the U.S. and the YPG should see their current relationship as a purely transactional one in which the YPG gains influence while the U.S. sees the defeat of ISIS. As such, the U.S. should avoid making any promises that it will support the political desires of the YPG and its associates in northern Syria.

According to Orton, it will be impossible to see improvement in U.S.-Turkey relations if the U.S. continues to support the YPG, as it represents a security threat to Turkey, one of the U.S.’ NATO allies.

For Coffey, the best-case scenario for Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch would be for Turkey to emerge out of the operation feeling that its border is more secure without having damaged U.S.-Turkey relations in the process.

However, for Orton, Operation Olive Branch runs the risk of becoming a bloody and protracted conflict. It could also result in Assad being able to re-assert his control over Afrin, as it is unlikely that Turkey will stay in the territory once the operation is complete, as it has in parts of northern Syria following Operation Euphrates Shield. Another possible outcome is that Turkey’s image among the international community could be further damaged by the operation.