Rogue Ally: Despite Turkish Aggression, the U.S. Should Support the SDF in Syria
On July 20, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, to discuss the growing list of issues between the pair of longtime allies. While no transcript was provided, the State Department released a summary that, despite its brevity, managed to encapsulate the Trump Administration’s stance on Turkey and Syria: ever ambiguous and deficient in courage. As Turkish troops amassed on the Syrian border, threatening an invasion of territory liberated from the Islamic State (ISIL) by the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Secretary Pompeo “reaffirmed” U.S. commitment to Turkish national security while also “reiterating” its support of allied forces in Syria.
What these contradictory statements mean for said American allies –particularly the Kurds, who, in spite of their integral role defeating ISIL, are frequently labeled “terrorists” by Turkish pro-government media– is highly unclear. It is notable that since President Donald Trump’s abrupt call for a total withdrawal of American forces in Syria, then subsequent flip-flop two months later, Washington’s foremost think tanks have gone conspicuously silent on the issue of U.S.-Turkey relations as they relate to Syria, focusing instead on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s apparent gravitation toward Russia following his government’s purchase of the S-400 missile systems. One can hardly blame them; it is, in fact, quite difficult to analyze a policy when the policy doesn’t appear to exist.
That isn’t to say that the U.S. has been entirely inactive. After Germany declined an American request to deploy ground troops to Syria, both France and the United Kingdom pledged 10 to 15 percent more soldiers, a victory for a president that campaigned on promises to lighten the burden on the U.S. military. However, one report notes that such an increase translates to only “several dozen” troops, an inadequate quantity considering the size of SDF-controlled territory. Additionally, top U.S. officials have visited SDF officials in Syria twice in the past two months, but discussions reportedly centered on counterterrorism strategy rather than political solutions to the Syrian conflict or the looming threat of a Turkish invasion. These are the questions that need answering. No one doubts U.S. desire to combat terrorism.
What the Trump Administration fails to realize –or at the very least, is too content with a tenuous status quo to do anything– is that good counterterrorism requires robust and lasting support, politically as well as militarily. The U.S. certainly desires the enduring defeat of ISIL, but its failure to develop tangible policy reflects a lackluster, fragile commitment to preventing the revival of an extremist safe haven. With multiple regional parties demonstrating aggression toward the SDF, the U.S. needs to act quickly and decisively in support of its ally by pressuring all parties involved into a fair, multilateral deal grounded in citizen security and civil liberties. Continuing down this path of inaction will only result in the perpetuation of conflict, the prolonging of the refugee crisis, and the potential for a revival of a territorial ISIL.
Current Threats to Stability in Northeastern Syria
Presently, the SDF-held territory in northeastern Syria –known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES)– rests in an extraordinarily precarious position. Its western border is shared with two parties, the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA) and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA), both of which –though in conflict with one another– oppose the SDF. The TFSA, in congruence with the anti-Kurdish sentiments of its patron, has launched two major operations that targeted Kurds, the latter of which resulted in “widespread human rights violations” and displaced over 150,000 people from Syria’s Afrin district. As for the Syrian regime forces, Assad has stated that he intends to retake all territory within Syria’s pre-war borders, an undertaking that would take years, but, considering his backing from Russia, is a credible threat nonetheless.
Internally, the SDF struggles against remnants of ISIL. Having been territorially defeated in March, its militants now resort to asymmetrical warfare in the form of urban bombings and rural arson; the former disrupts a sense of rare, cherished stability in a region engulfed by conflict, while the latter destabilizes an already feeble economy. ISIL cells have destroyed some 50,000 acres of NES land since May, reportedly costing the nascent governing administrations $50 million worth in crops.
Turkey’s Historical Oppression of the Kurds and its Contemporary Relevance
While the TFSA, Assad regime, and ISIL cells make for pressing threats, the NES’ greatest challenge emanates from its northern neighbor. Since the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the founding of the Republic of Turkey, Turkish authorities have sought national unity through societal homogeneity, or Turkification. This policy essentially criminalizes cultural diversity; from the Armenian Genocide in the early 20th century to today’s ongoing anti-Semitism, minorities in Turkey have long faced persecution at the hands of the government. In Turkey’s Kurdish Question, a 1998 book by Graham E. Fuller and Henri J. Barkey, the authors point out that the government’s anti-Kurdish sentiment was not just rhetoric, but law:
In the 1924 [Republic of Turkey] constitution, the terms “citizenship” and “citizen” had been equated with Turkishness. Accordingly, the document stated that one had to be a Turk to become a member of parliament and the like. Certainly Kurds could qualify as “Turks,” but only at the expense of denying their own ethnic identity.
Rather than do so, Kurds organized and revolted, most notably in the form of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In 1984, after years of preparation and intra-Kurdish strife, the PKK launched its insurgency against the Turkish state, striking military checkpoints and barracks in the towns of Semdinli and Eruh. It was the start of a decades-long conflict that, despite the 1999 capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and the occasional ceasefire, endures today.
Herein lies Turkey’s issue with American partnerships in Syria. The SDF is a pluralistic organization consisting of Arabs, Syriac Christians, and Yazidis, among others, but it is predominantly Kurdish, having originated from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a well-organized Syrian Kurdish militia dating back to 2004. The U.S. listed the PKK as a terrorist organization in 1997 but never extended its designation toward the YPG. Turkey, on the other hand, views the YPG as an extension of the PKK, and given its proximity to Turkey’s southeastern borders, as a viable threat to its national security.
The Case for the SDF
I suppose this is the world we live in: one in which a state can spend nearly a century attempting to erase the identities of its indigenous ethnic groups, then throw a tantrum when one of them decides to revolt. The only catch here is that the SDF, unlike the PKK, does not aspire to harm Turkey, its well-armed bully of a neighbor; in fact, the U.S. formed its alliance with the SDF on the condition that it would not target Turkish state forces, as such an attack would require an American response under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization charter. All NES residents want is for the Assad regime, ISIL, and Turkey to leave it alone.
Why should the U.S. stand by the SDF? For one, the U.S. is safer with a stable Levant. ISIL’s rise was only possible because of the vacuum created by the Syrian Civil War. With a well-governed political entity positioned in its former territory, the vacuum closes, and the region is less susceptible to extremist violence. This is especially critical given the SDF’s protection of the al-Hol camp, a facility holding some 70,000 displaced individuals, many of whom are family members of former ISIL militants. Deputy major commander of the U.S.-led coalition called inhabitants of al-Hol the “next generation” of ISIL, but the international community has taken no major steps to resolve the problem. The U.S. could take the lead by assisting the SDF and human rights organizations in maintaining and securing the camps while administering rehabilitation programs and returning foreign fighters to their native countries for trial.
Secondly, U.S. presence in the region acts as another theater to indirectly confront Iran. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s government has real influence in Syria and Iraq via its support of the Assad regime, its regional militias, and the transnational shipping route often referred to as the “land bridge.” A capable, U.S.-supported SDF can deter the Assad regime and Iranian militias from encroaching in northeastern Syria, and its presence also inhibits Iranian arms, supplies, and fighters from reaching the Syrian regime or Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy force in Lebanon and a principal threat to Israel.
Lastly, the SDF’s territories is the antithesis of its enemies. NES is a multiethnic, religiously diverse entity operating on principles of feminism, secularism, and local governance, all of which are in sharp contrast to Erdogan’s nationalism, ISIL’s extremism, and Assad’s autocracy. It is rare that the U.S. arms militants whose values reflect a fervent interest in human rights and democracy.
Reevaluating the U.S.-Turkey Relationship
Whereas the SDF has proven itself as an accountable ally, Turkey’s domestic political trends and ties to Syrian-based extremist groups suggest that its relationship with the U.S. is not what it used to be. The U.S. cannot afford to be sclerotic in its foreign policy –realizing and adapting to changing realities is requisite to being a positive global force– and at the present, it must respond to Turkey’s gross incompetence in combatting terrorism and clear democratic backsliding.
Known as the “gateway to Jihad,” the Turkish-Syrian border became a port for the 40,000 foreign fighters that traveled to participate in the conflict. With ISIL recruits pouring over the Turkish border into Syria, the Erdogan government played dumb, refusing to implement even basic measures that would stem the flow of fighters. Scant oversight at the border allowed active militants to retreat into Turkey for health services. “We used to have some fighters — even high-level members of the Islamic State — getting treated in Turkish hospitals,” an ISIL commander told the Washington Post in 2014. “And also, most of the fighters who joined us in the beginning of the war came via Turkey, and so did our equipment and supplies.”
Turkey stood to gain from an extremist insurgency in Syria in the most cynical of senses; the republic shares two common enemies with Da’esh and like-minded groups, the Alawi government in Damascus and the majority Kurdish population in the northeast. Now that its initial strategy to defeat Kurdish-led forces via extremist proxies has failed, President Erdogan’s government is transitioning to plan B, applying significant political and military pressure on the SDF in an effort to bring the U.S. to a detrimental agreement. The aforementioned TFSA invasion of Afrin in 2018 was not a direct threat to American ground forces, but it drew Kurdish SDF militias out of NES territory who wanted to protect Kurdish civilians, weakening the region’s security. In early July, Turkey began amassing troops along the NES border, and shortly after, Foreign Minister Cavusoglu warned of an attack if his government’s proposed “safe zone” was not established. As of today, Turkey’s aggression has met little U.S. resistance.
Recommendations: Robust Military, Economic, and Political Support for the SDF
Turkey hopes that its acts of aggression will force the U.S. to accept its proposed “safe zone,” a plan that roughly translates to Turkey unilaterally annexing of a large portion of SDF-controlled territory. This is a nonstarter for Syria’s Kurds, who justifiably expect persecution under a Turkish occupation. Thus, the U.S. needs to move quickly and definitively against Turkish pressure by supporting the NES with increased military presence, as well as valuable economic and political assistance.
In regards to military support, the U.S. and coalition members should increase the number of ground troops in the NES. While thousands of Turkish troops are gathering on the border, U.S. coalition forces are said to only number in the hundreds. This is not an endorsement of armed conflict with our NATO ally. The issue is that Turkey believes the U.S. is susceptible to persuasion, and with good reason; after all, President Trump’s decision to withdraw forces in December came immediately after a phone call with President Erdogan. By succumbing to pressure, President Trump demonstrated uncertainty about supporting the SDF, an uncertainty that Turkey is currently exploiting. An increase in troops would signal firm commitment to the SDF, robbing Turkey of its diplomatic leverage and granting NES residents peace of mind.
Economic well-being is closely related to citizen security Northeastern Syria, with its sprawling agricultural fields and oil reserves, has unique potential to thrive economically, but it lacks the adequate technology to do so; currently, Syrian farmers use antiquated methods to harvest their wheat and have no way to effectively fight the crop fires ignited by Da’esh arsonists. Destroyed roads can inhibit the transportation of goods and aid, and damaged sewers create sanitation problems. The U.S. should formally declare its backing of the SDC and provide it with the resources it needs to develop sustainably.
Political recognition and assistance would permit the SDC a seat at the negotiating table, giving northeastern Syria a say in its future. As of the publication of this article, Syrian opposition parties have not allowed SDC representatives to participate in talks with the Assad regime and its international backers. Demonstrations of international support for the SDC, such as a Swedish delegation visit in early July, have reportedly warmed opposition parties to the idea of inviting SDC representatives to talks. A clear demonstration of American support would influence them further.
Final Thoughts: Support of SDF is Worth the Diplomatic Rift
In April, I wrote that the U.S. should revise its policy toward Saudi Arabia given its perpetration of human rights abuses and continued failure to curb extremism. The U.S.-Saudi relationship runs deep, but American policymakers are too keen to turn a blind eye to the Kingdom’s transgressions for the sake of the relationship. Turkey’s case is similar; as with the Saudi regime, we could bend to its wishes, defer to the judgment of its leaders, and dismiss undemocratic and harmful policies as irrelevant or untrue. President Erdogan’s behavior in his region is his prerogative, the thinking goes; as an ally, we trust him to act broadly in our interest.
However, this is clearly not the case, and it’s time to turn a new page in U.S.-Turkey relations. Its faults are egregious and well-documented, and its enemies are our friends. The U.S. should not fear divergence from an ally if that ally diverges from American values and goals.