Turkish tanks gather close to the Syrian border on January 21, 2018, at Hassa, in Hatay province. Photo: AFP/Bulent Kilic
Turkish tanks gather close to the Syrian border on January 21, 2018, at Hassa, in Hatay province. Photo: AFP/Bulent Kilic

Tension is escalating in northern Syria between Turkey and the United States, both members of the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization. A compromise on Washington’s support for Kurdish forces in the region, which Ankara views as terrorists, does not seem in the offing just yet.

On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for US troops to withdraw from Manbij, reiterating that Turkey’s military operation against Kurds in the Syrian canton of Afrin would be extended to this town situated west of the Euphrates River. Manbij is controlled by a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters linked to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Washington has so far rejected any request to leave Manbij, which is inhabited by both Arab and Kurdish people. Erdogan has repeatedly attacked the United States for its backing of the Kurdish People’s Protection Forces (YPG) militia, which has connections with the rebel PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) movement in Turkey.

YPG militants are the main component of the SDF and the most capable partner of the United States in the Syrian civil war. They dominate vast portions of Syria’s northern and northeastern territory. Helped by US forces, SDF troops wrested Manbij from Islamic State (ISIS) in the summer of 2016.

The Turkish government says Washington has not lived up to the promise of ceding the town to the Free Syrian Army, Ankara’s key proxy in Syria. This has created a potentially explosive situation, with two NATO allies that might end up fighting each other for the first time since the Atlantic alliance’s formation back in 1949.

Bad relations

Relations between the United States and Turkey are at an all-time low. They have already been marred by Ankara’s decision to buy Russia’s S-400 air and missile defense system, and Washington’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric Erdogan believes is behind the failed coup attempt against him in July 2016.

Ahmet Berat Conkar, a member of the Turkish parliament for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and head of Turkey’s delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, told Asia Times that his government was “very determined to clean all of our southern border from terrorist enclaves, including Manbij.” He added that “this is a burning national-security threat for Turkey, which believes the US administration will cooperate with its NATO ally to achieve this objective.” In his view, “there is no other option for Turkey.”

The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition force in Turkey, is less upbeat in its assessment of current US-Turkish ties. Ozgur Ozel, a CHP parliament whip, told this writer that his party was very concerned about the situation in northern Syria, including in Afrin.

He said “any possible military intervention by Turkey into Manbij, where US troops station alongside the SDF, would escalate the conflictual situation in the region and cause a new delay in finding a political solution to the Syrian war.” The lawmaker went on to say that Ankara’s relations with Washington and the other NATO allies “will receive another blow if Turkey expands its military operations into Manbij.”

Ozel’s words came after CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu had said that the military initiative against Kurdish militias in Afrin was “inevitable.” Many have read Kilicdaroglu’s remark as a seeming attempt not to alienate nationalist voters in Turkey who support the armed action against Syrian Kurds. In this regard, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party said Erdogan’s military campaign in northern Syria was actually aimed at propping up his nationalist base in the lead-up to the presidential elections in 2019.

Diplomacy and changing dynamics

All that said, the impression is that the United States and Turkey are active behind the scenes to avert a potential face-off. US National Security Adviser H R McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will likely try to seize the moment while dealing with their Turkish counterparts. The tactical entente with Russia that has allowed Turkey to launch its action against Kurds in Afrin appears to be faltering. Indeed, it is said Moscow is wary of Turkey’s possible links with al-Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham rebels, who claimed the downing of a Russian Su-25 fighter over Idlib province on February 3.

What’s more, Turkey’s encroachment in its southern neighbor’s territory is opposed by the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and its Iranian ally, which have retaliated against Turkish positions in Idlib in the past few days.

Soner Cagaptay, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is among those thinking the US should distance itself from Syrian Kurds and mend ties with Turkey, especially now that ISIS has been defeated. Speaking to Asia Times, he emphasized that “the US views Turkey a as a strategic and long-term ally, and the YPG as a tactical and short-term one. And that is where the difference lies.”

A problem: US long-term presence in Syria

At the moment, however, it is unlikely that the US will force YPG fighters to withdraw from Manbij and move into the Kurdish-held area east of the Euphrates River. Washington says its troops and the SDF fighters are still engaged in taking out remnants of ISIS in eastern Syria.

As well, the US government knows it would face strong opposition from its Kurdish partners. The city lies at a strategic crossroads, which gives YPG militants relatively quick access to Afrin by passing through Syrian government-dominated territory.

Tillerson recently talked about a long-term presence of the US in Syria aimed at countering both Iran’s rising influence and the Assad regime, besides tackling Islamist militants. With an indefinite stay in Syria, Washington’s partnership with the YPG is likely to remain in place indefinitely.

More important, future decisions on the issue will be influenced by how Turkey’s military blitz in Afrin goes ahead. After three weeks of intense fighting, it seems that Ankara is struggling to make considerable territorial gains. The Pentagon will certainly be in wait-and-see mode.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.