According to the mood in the American administration, the U.S. relations with Turkey is the most problematic one by far, not even closer to the current strains with China or Russia. And that is exactly the mood in the Turkish government circles regarding its most important ally and it is likely to be tested once again soon. Soon means the early weeks, perhaps the first months of 2019, probably before the March 31 local elections in Turkey which could be seen as a test for President Tayyip Erdoğan to consolidate his power further.
The next test in Turkish-American relations could be another Turkish military operation into Syria. But this time against the U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) controlled Northeast Syria along the Turkish border, SDF being a tailor made name in order to smoke-screen the Democratic Unity Party (PYD) which is nothing but the Syria branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is also considered as terrorist by the U.S. It was the American Special Forces Commander Raymond Thomas who told the Aspen Security forum in 2017 that when they asked the PKK offshoots in 2015 to come up with another name in order not to upset Turkey which has been subject to PKK attacks since 1984, and they came up with this “democratic” name the next day.
The question is whether Turkey will dare to start this operation which can mean Turkish troops coming face to face with the Americans, if the U.S. President Donald Trump makes his choice to defend his PYD partners, who act like American foot soldiers against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), or DAESH against his NATO ally Turkey which has been a must in confronting the Soviet Union in the past and now Russia.
The answer is, why not.
Similar questions were asked when Erdoğan urged action against threats on Turkey before the military operation into Syria starting from the DAESH-held Jarablus and Dabiq and went down to al-Bab in August-December 2016 together with the Free Syria Army (FSA) militia. And that operation nicked as the “Euphrates Shield” had started only five weeks after a military coup attempt, indicted be masterminded by Fethullah Gülen, a US-resident Islamist preacher –which remains to be another big problem in between.
Similar questions were raised when Erdoğan started to talk about the threats on Turkish security from the PYD/PKK hold enclave of Afrin, Northwest of Syria by the Turkish border. Some commentators took it as a bluff but they were wrong; Turkish military and FSA militia crushed PYD/PKK there and took Afrin, promising that it will be given back to Syria after the peace solution.
Those operations were made possible with the cooperation of Russia; Erdoğan was (and is) already in Astana ceasefire process with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. For an operation into the US-backed PYD controlled “East of the Euphrates” area Turkey has to consider the risks of confronting the U.S. in a region where Russia and Syria have limited control.
On the other hand Ankara believes there are four main factors which can make such an incursion inevitable:
• The need of decreasing the vulnerability of the 913 km border with Syria from attacks by not only DAESH but also the PKK and affiliates. That is why, observing American flags waving next to the PYD ones on the other side of the border makes Turks upset,
• The need to get at least some of the 3 million plus refugees back to their lands. Government said some 250 thousand have already been settled backed to Jarablus, al-Bab and Afrin areas,
• The need to allow Arab communities to govern themselves, not by Kurds for example, as in the bitter case of Iraq after the U.S. invasion,
• And being the most political one of all, the concern about PYD/PKK starting to form some sort of a Kurdish government within Syria, next to Turkish borders. It had taken some time for Turks to digest the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq despite being constitutional and not having any territorial and political claims from Turkey.
Plus there is the domestic factor. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) needs to win the March 31 local elections. Keeping Istanbul and Ankara in AK Parti hands are vital for consolidating Erdoğan’s power. But AK Parti ratings are reportedly 8-9 percent below the ratings of Erdoğan in recent polls. That is why Erdoğan needs external support to achieve his goals comfortably and Devlet Bahçeli of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is volunteering for that support providing that there would be “no concessions to the terrorist” especially on the Kurdish issue.
Therefore; Erdoğan’s former records about doing what he says, the four pushing factors and the domestic political factors may well lead Americans not to exclude the possibility of a Turkish incursion into their sphere of influence in Syria.
There are of course consequential risks for Turkey due to such an incursion, including:
• Assuming that Americans will not militarily stop their NATO ally Turks in an anti-terror fight, strengthening of DAESH could be a risk, with the risk of being accused of causing it by the Americans. That could also expose Turkey to more terror attacks,
• Loosing American pressure factor in relations with Russia, Iran and the Syrian government, if and when needed,
• And the possibility of PYD/PKK scrapping the deal with the Americans and having an agreement with Syria, keeping in mind that it was the (father) Assad regime which harboured PKK’s founding leader Abdullah Öcalan and his headquarters between 1982-1998 before bowing to Turkish pressure which lead the arrest of Öcalan in 1999 in a joint Turkish-American intelligence operation.
Then comes the other question: what will Americans do if Turkey gets into Northeast Syria despite all odds? Will the US Central Command (CENTCOM) fight against Turks to defend their PYD/PKK partners taking all the risks of possible consequences that could shake NATO amid the Russia-Ukraine crisis for example?
There are no answers for those two questions for the time being.
There are diplomatic efforts to avoid such an impasse. US Secretary of State’s special envoy for Syria peace, James Jeffrey was in Turkey on Dec 7-9 for an update of the situation and promises to speed up the process to keep promises regarding clearing PYD/PKK elements from the city council of the Syrian city of Manbij. Erdoğan’s Chief Adviser and Spokesman İbrahim Kalın reportedly told Jeffrey that Turkey wanted to see the promises kept by the end of the year which means some twenty days ahead including the Christmas and not very likely. But early January could satisfy Turks depending on the outcome. Before departing for Amman, Jordan, Jeffrey visited a military camp in the Turkish province of Gaziantep, bordering Syria, where two infantry platoons, one Turkish and one American are having training together for their ongoing joint patrol program around Manbij to make sure that PYD/PKK elements would be forced to leave.
Promises kept in Manbij could moderate the tension a bit but could not be enough to avoid a Turkish military move into Syria, which is not a possibility to be excluded in short and middle term scenarios in the region.