Turkish-American Conflict in the Context of the Syrian Civil War

By Chris Garcia


  • Overview

On March 15th 2021, the world reached the grim milestone of the officially recognized tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, when protesters marched on Damascus and Aleppo as part of a larger movement now known as the Arab Spring. The ensuing civil war has dragged on for a decade, resulting in the deaths of over half a million people, and displacing millions more [1], creating one of the worst refugee crises in modern history. The longevity of the conflict is due in large part to the involvement of multiple foreign powers, notably the United States and Turkey. The involvement of these NATO allies would have a profound impact on their relationship over the course of the conflict; although aligned in their initial objective of degrading the forces of President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Republic, their strategic goals began to clash as the conflict continued. American support for and use of Kurdish militias [2] hostile to Turkey as a proxy force to counter the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known by the Arabic acronym Daesh, angered Ankara, and Turkish action against those Kurdish groups [3] angered Washington as it frustrated American counterterrorism operations. Although Turkish-American tensions regarding the conflict have cooled in recent years, the damage was done, and remains one of many reasons for the deterioration of relations between the two nations.

  • Timeline of United States and Turkish involvement

The violence generated condemnation from the international community from its outset and as civil unrest devolved into civil war, foreign powers began supporting one side or the other. International involvement originally began as supplying provisions or covert training programs, but this dramatically changed in 2014 [4]; in response to the rapid escalation and territorial expansion of Daesh, the United States Department of Defense established Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) [5]. This U.S.-led task force of NATO and regional allies began an air campaign against Daesh targets, with the first munitions falling on targets in Syria in September of 2014 [6], marking the beginning of direct U.S.-led involvement in the conflict. 

In 2016, Turkish involvement escalated dramatically when Turkish Army forces were sent across the Syrian border [7] in the first steps of what became known as Operation Euphrates Shield. The following three years saw Daesh forces continually beaten back in Syria at the hands of Turkish forces, Syrian government forces, Inherent Resolve efforts, and Syrian rebel groups, until the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared victory over Daesh [8]. This was hardly a conclusion to the violence, as Turkish and Turkish-supported rebels, Kurdish forces, and Russian-backed Syrian Army forces continued to face off in the years following. Presently the conflict has scaled down due to a series of tense ceasefires between factions, but regional peace and security remains little more than a distant hope.

  • Turkish operations and strategic goals over the course of the conflict

Although Turkey’s role in the Syrian Civil War started much like its NATO allies, providing political and indirect military support for Syrian opposition groups, it was one of the few nations to deploy ground forces on a massed scale. It also diverged from the strategic objectives of its NATO allies over a specific issue—its stance on Kurdish forces, more specifically Kurdish forces associated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which includes the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG). 

In the early stages of the conflict, the PYD had been in contact with Ankara, negotiating the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Syria should the rebel cause succeed; unfortunately, Turkish-PYD relations soured when the PYD accused Turkey of indirectly aiding Daesh forces in the siege of Kobanî [9], a majority Kurdish city. These accusations resulted in reactionary violence and a larger breakdown in peace negotiations between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) [10], a Kurdish militant political organization whose goal is Kurdish autonomy. As Turkey then accused the PYD of collaborating with the PKK, hostilities resumed between Turkey and the PKK, PYD, and by extension the YPG. Thus, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016, with the dual goal of combating Daesh and taking over Kurdish-held territory bordering Turkey, pushing YPG forces east of the Euphrates [11]. Operation Euphrates Shield lasted seven months, reaching its conclusion in March of 2017 [12]. 

Months later in early 2018, Turkey pushed even further into Kurdish-held territory in the Afrin province in northwestern Syria in what was known as Operation Olive Branch [13], which dramatically altered the face of the conflict in terms of alliances. Despite reaching an agreement with Syrian army forces to fend off Turkish advances in northwestern Syria [14], SDF forces withdrew in early 2018 following defeat at the city of Afrin [15]. Continued Turkish operations in the region resulted in sporadic clashes between Turkish-backed, SDF, and Syrian forces, but the region has remained under a tense ceasefire negotiated by Russia and Turkey in 2020 [16]. In the northeast, Turkish operations against Kurdish militias remained relatively static until the sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region in 2019 at the behest of former U.S. President Trump, allegedly to open the way for the ensuing Turkish offensive into Kurdish-held territory [17]. This offensive pushed further into Kurdish territory, establishing the current occupation zones and extending Turkey’s occupied buffer zone.

As regional borders have more or less solidified into an uneasy stalemate, Turkey has turned its attention to its other strategic goal, repatriation of the millions of Syrian refugees living in Turkey in order to ease civil tensions and maintain domestic stability. Pursuant to this goal, Turkey has begun the process of rebuilding towns and cities inside its buffer zone with the intent of moving Syrian refugees back into their home country. This plan has been widely criticized by the international community, as in spite of the current stalemate, the region is far from secure. These concerns are exacerbated by a lack of a long-term Turkish security strategy for the region [18], particularly regarding fear of reprisals against resettled Syrians should Syrian government forces re-establish control of these zones [19]. In spite of criticism of this plan from the international community, Turkey is at present continuing forward with this repatriation plan. 

  • U.S. operations and strategic goals over the course of the conflict

In the early years of the conflict, the U.S. shared overarching strategic goals with Turkey; to support Syrian rebel groups with the objective of either ousting the Assad regime or forcing them into peace negotiations with rebel groups. The nature and scale of U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict ramped up dramatically in the latter half of 2014 with the establishment of Operation Inherent Resolve. One month later in October, the U.S. dropped weapons, medical supplies, and other materials to support the beleaguered forces defending the Kurdish-majority city of Kobanî from a Daesh siege [20]. This is significant with regards to U.S.-Turkish relations as it was the first instance of the U.S. providing direct aid to Kurdish militia forces, a practice that would strain relations between the U.S. and Turkey due to Turkey’s opposition to many prominent Kurdish militias. These tensions would intensify over the course of the conflict as the U.S. ramped up its support of the YPG-dominated SDF, particularly in the lead up to the operation to retake the city of Raqqa from Daesh forces [21].

Following the joint operation in Raqqa, the U.S. collaborated with Turkey to establish a secure zone along Turkey’s southern border with the expressed goal of creating a buffer between Turkey and the conflict zones in Syria, but also serving to strengthen Kurdish territorial holdings in the border region in which they hoped to establish an autonomously administered Kurdish zone [22]. This arrangement changed dramatically with the previously mentioned withdrawal of U.S. forces embedded within the SDF presence in the region, clearing the way for a Turkish offensive [17]. Although the decision was reversed weeks later and an American presence was established among Kurdish holdings in northeastern Syria, the close partnership that had been maintained between Kurdish militias and the U.S. had been irreversibly damaged, altering the profile of the tensions between Washington and Ankara. 

The current, limited U.S. presence in Syria serves to maintain the security of the northeastern oil fields, cooperating with the SDF in preventing a resurgent Daesh presence and providing cover for SDF forces from further Turkish, Russian, or Iranian aggression as they maintain prisons holding Daesh personnel. As U.S. President Biden has not yet made any definitive statements on the future of the American presence in Syria, it is difficult to predict what the scope and nature American involvement will be in the future; that being said, the airstrikes ordered by the Biden administration on pro-Iranian targets in Syria [23] could indicate a persistent or even renewed strategic commitment to the region.

  • Assessment of current relations

The tensions between the U.S. and Turkey over the Syrian conflict, as stated, were borne out of a divergence of strategic objectives as the conflict progressed; Turkey saw the U.S as enabling a significant threat to its national security in the Kurdish militias, and the U.S. saw Turkey as directly opposing its primary method of combating what was perceived as a significant threat to its own national security.  As regional occupation borders have more or less solidified, the concern for U.S.-Turkish relations in Syria currently seem to be based on whether or not Ankara seeks to extend its buffer zone across its entire border into regions currently held by the combined forces of the Syrian Army, the SDF, and a number of other militias; although Ankara has stated that it does not have further territorial ambitions, the truth of this remains to be seen.

Unfortunately, it must be noted that this is far from the only reason for the recent breakdown in U.S.-Turkish relations as a whole. Among these are such things as the conflict over Turkish acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile defense system and subsequent expulsion from the F-35 fighter program, creating immense tensions between the U.S. and Turkey as well as the Turkey and NATO as a whole, as it is seen by many as a betrayal of NATO’s principles of  defense cooperation and interoperability [24]. Tensions have also grown in the Eastern Mediterranean region as Turkey has come into conflict with other NATO allies over access to energy resources and overall influence in the region [25]. Disagreements over alliances, national security strategy, and both foreign and domestic policy continue to strain relations between the U.S. and Turkey, as well as Turkey’s place within the NATO alliance. 

  • Opportunities for future reconciliation

Although the installment of a new administration in Washington provides an opportunity for a “reset” in U.S.-Turkish relations, tensions between the two nations are still as complex and multifaceted as ever, as mentioned previously. With regards to Syria, relations have reached somewhat of a stalemate much in the same way that the conflict has. Presently, Turkish rhetoric regarding U.S. cooperation with its Kurdish adversaries has cooled following the 2019 invasion, as Turkey seems for the moment more concerned about operating within their own buffer zones and maintaining the ceasefire in northwestern Syria, where the U.S. is not engaged. This lull in the conflict offers a chance for Turkey and the U.S. to come together in pursuit of conflict resolution and as a hopeful result, ease some of the tensions that have been built over the last decade. 

In order to do so, both nations will have to take steps towards an agreeable middle ground on certain issues, which may involve some transactional compromise on both sides. For Turkey’s part, a concerted effort to continue de-escalation of tensions with Kurdish groups to pre-Kobanî relations, particularly those cooperating with American counterterrorism operations in the region could significantly improve relations. Arguably the most move Turkey could make towards improving relations with Kurdish elements would be to yield on their longstanding rejection to a Kurdish presence in the overarching peace negotiations for the region. The reality is that any of this would necessitate Turkey relenting on their enduring diametric opposition to the possibility of an independent Kurdish state or autonomous region on its border, as will undoubtedly be the Kurdish position on the negotiating table; this being said, it may be one of the best ways for Turkey to both improve relations with the U.S. in the context of Syria, while also being a potential avenue for de-escalation of not only this conflict, but the longstanding Turkish-Kurdish dispute as well.

The U.S. for its part also has a number of actions that could be taken to improve relations with Turkey in the context of the conflict. As Turkey prioritizes repatriating Syrian refugees to its occupied buffer zones, the U.S. could improve relations by offering assistance in the rebuilding process, offering humanitarian aid to the refugee population, offering to assist in maintaining the security of the region, or some combination of the three. Worthy of note however is that if the U.S. were to, in any way, support Turkey’s repatriation efforts, it must be done with the utmost prudence in order to maintain compliance with international refugee law. A third option which the U.S. could consider would be to offer to host refugees from Syria in an attempt to lighten the load for Turkey, as well as diverting refugees from what many in the West see as a dangerously designed repatriation plan. Beyond the sheer logistical challenge of this plan, it could prove difficult to sell to elements of the American population, but if pursued could alleviate some of the pressure on Turkey and ideally improve relations with the Turkish government and its people.

The unfortunate reality is that as complicated and multi-layered as the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. is in the context of their cooperation and conflict in the Syrian Civil War, it is but one element of a much more complicated relationship. Even if greater cooperation is achieved with regards to Syria, there are still a multitude of other, equally complicated subject areas over which the U.S.-Turkish relationship has been strained over the past decade. That being said, the most effective way to approach repairing relations between the two nations will be to tackle each of these issue areas individually, and with each side being willing to compromise on certain issues. Both nations must also approach their relationship with the understanding that they have more to gain as allies than as rivals, and that positive relations will not only benefit themselves and each other, but NATO at large, the European Union, and other alliances, industries, and organizations as well. As long as Turkey and the U.S. are willing to improve relations and approach their disagreements collaboratively with the intent of fostering a closer alliance, relations between these two nations will be well-equipped to recover and grow to new heights of international friendship.


Sources

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