Turkey’s Justice and Development Party—the AKP—has high hopes for the Trump Administration. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, attended the inauguration and met with a handful of Trump cabinet officials, reportedly to discuss ways and means to improve bilateral relations. For Ankara, Donald Trump represents an opportunity to reset the relationship with the United States, Turkey’s most important ally. Turkish leaders hope to shape U.S. thinking on Syria and persuade the U.S. government to cease its support for Syria’s Kurds, specifically the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its affiliated militia, the YPG.
Turkey’s desire to bend the new Administration’s attitudes, however, are unlikely to succeed. The Trump Administration faces the same dilemma as did the Obama Administration: how to balance relations with Turkey, a NATO ally, while prioritizing the fight against the Islamic State and the rapid taking of Raqqa, its administrative hub in Syria, and while allied to a militia that the AKP leadership believes is a terrorist organization? President Trump has to yet clearly articulate his Administration’s Syria policy except state that the defeat of the Islamic State is a priority. That portends greater or more intense U.S. military cooperation with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the umbrella organization of (mostly) Kurdish groups within which the YPG is the primary component. That will not please Ankara.
The ongoing U.S.-Turkish disagreement over Syria exists in a sharply different context these days than has heretofore been the case. Previous U.S. administrations would have been extremely concerned about Turkish tactical cooperation with Russia, but not, apparently, President Trump, who has mentioned joining up with Russia and the Assad regime to dispatch ISIS (hoping at the same time, somehow, to split Iran away from that tandem). Previous U.S. administrations would have cared deeply about the implications of U.S.-Turkish disagreement for the health of NATO, but Trump has called NATO “obsolete.” Ordinarily, U.S.-Turkish differences over the Kurds in the Syrian context would have touched off even broader concerns about the Transatlantic security architecture, the cornerstone of the post-World War II liberal international order. But the Turks cannot possibly undermine that order more effectively than the President of the United States himself.
Even before the age of Trump, key constituencies in Washington were questioning Ankara’s value to the Western-created global security architecture, a departure from key assumptions U.S. leaders held during the Cold War. The authoritarian tendencies of the AKP leadership and legacy differences over the 2003 invasion of Iraq predated Trump.
Indeed, the relationship was troubled throughout the period of the Syrian civil war. The Turks argued that the main source of ISIS’s strength was the murderous behavior of the Assad regime—and that, therefore, the best way to combat the Islamic State was to protect and arm the Syrian opposition, including groups with links to al-Qaeda’s Syria branch. The Obama Administration differed in its assessment, concluding that the insurgency was too fragmented to be politically viable and, therefore, efforts to use military force to aid in the overthrow of the regime would be counterproductive. Now, in the aftermath of the Russian intervention to save the Assad regime, the Turks have come off their insistence on Assad’s exit as a precondition to solving Syria politically. The reason, aside from the futility of the situation on the ground, goes to the leverage the Russians have over the Syrian regime and any changes it may make to the current governing model. The Russian government, by extension, will be a key player in helping to craft a new Syrian governing model, and any efforts to decentralize the Syrian state would empower the Syrian Kurds. That leverage has forced the Turks essentially to mollify Moscow, lest it sit back and watch as the YPG expands its territorial control along its longest land border.
The Turks, therefore, have blundered into a real mess, partly of their own making. During the Cold War, they have always needed the United States to help deter the Russian military, deployed along its border. The war in Syria has up-ended this thinking. Ankara has flip-flopped on the Russian issue. Turkey bitterly complained in 2016 about the growing military build-up in Syria after the political leadership gave authorization to shoot down a Russian Su-24 for an airspace violation in late November 2015. For many in the Turkish government, the concurrent U.S. decision to withdraw Patriot missile batteries and deploy F-15s for only a short period were indicative of American weakness, a policy that much of the Turkish leadership ascribed to President Obama’s leadership in Syria.
Just a few months later, the same leader, Erdogan, changed gears and eventually put in place a mechanism to jointly bomb Al Bab with the same Russian air force he had tasked the Turkish military with shooting down. Obama was still weak in the eyes of many Turks, but the corresponding complaints about “the American failure to deter” Russia had disappeared—and even more so, the complaints about the very real threat from Russian air defenses in Syria simply evaporated from public and private discourse. The Trump Administration has yet to clearly articulate a Syria policy, vacillating between discussions about “safe zones” and pledges to end the recent American habit of using military force to “impose liberal and democratic” values around the world. The inherent conflicts between these two talking points remain unexplained.
The focus on the Islamic State, however, is clear—a reality that will likely result in deeper American-Kurdish cooperation in the forthcoming battle for the city. Russia, too, has engaged with the Syrian Kurds, reportedly holding discussions about enshrining local autonomy in a new Syrian constitution. The combination is detrimental to Turkish interests. The fact that the AKP leadership has welcomed the Trump presidency therefore ranks somewhere between peculiar and delusional.
On the surface, the U.S. divergence with Turkey turns on fundamental differences about how best to fight the ground war against the Islamic State in Syria. At the tactical level in Syria, the U.S. government has cultivated a strong relationship with the YPG, using the Kurdish majority force as the backbone of ongoing efforts to encourage ethnic Arabs to join the SDF. The YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group that has been fighting successive Turkish governments for close to three decades. The SDF has spearheaded the current offensive to take territory north of Raqqa, recently receiving from the U.S. military armored vehicles to aid in the future offensive for the city.
The American relationship with the SDF is a byproduct of revolutionary changes in how the U.S. military fights wars in the post-9/11 era. Advances in precision airpower and a heavy reliance on Special Operations Forces, who are tasked with working “by, with, and through” local allies to achieve assigned military objectives, increase the importance of capable local ground forces in insurgent conflicts. The fractured nature of the Arab-dominated Syrian insurgency, coupled with the very real risk posed by jihadi fighters in much of northern Syria, narrows the options for U.S. war planners tasked with defeating Islamic State. The SDF is united and answers to one leader, and there is little risk to U.S. operators embedded with them.
The U.S. military has a very narrow responsibility in Syria: Degrade and defeat the Islamic State. The operators working inside Syria have little regard for the longer-term implications of bolstering the capabilities and reputation of the SDF within the ambit of Syrian politics, and they have little regard for Turkish sensitivities because, for many of them, Turkish policies have hindered the fight against ISIS. The Syrian Kurds clearly mean to use their capabilities to carve out a contiguous autonomous zone for Kurds in Syria, made up of “cantons” or zones, and to maintain that autonomy after the civil war is over. They have a name for it: The Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria, known previously as Rojava (West Kurdistan). This precisely is what the Turks desperately want to prevent, and to the AKP, again locked in a deadly fight with the PKK inside Turkey, this goal has become a question of political survival. Over the past roughly 18 months, therefore, preventing the further expansion of PYD control has replaced ousting Assad as Turkey’s top priority in Syria.
As for the U.S. government, the prospect of an autonomous region that survives the current mayhem poses several very difficult questions. To encourage it contradicts the still-current U.S. policy of favoring the territorial unity of both Syria and Iraq. But to use it for the purpose of destroying ISIS and then to deny the Kurds the political goal behind their effort would amount to betrayal. Moreover, there is the question of the future relationship of Rojava to the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. The Obama Administration never did sort all this out; it is plainly a hard problem. The Trump Administration has no answers yet. Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, unintentionally underscored the Administration’s dilemma. In two different answers during his confirmation hearing, Tillerson pledged to both reach out to Turkey to repair relations and deepen U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds to defeat ISIS.
To deflect the U.S. government from supporting the SDF, one would think that the Turks would need to step up and offer a better alternative. But the Turkish government has failed to present a detailed and militarily feasible plan to achieve U.S. government goals in Syria. Turkey’s cross-border military operation, Euphrates Shield, is riddled with shortcomings that have precluded it from serious consideration as a potentially effective springboard for more expansive counter-ISIS operations. Euphrates Shield is under-resourced and has bogged down on the outskirts of Al Bab, a city many times smaller than Raqqa. That has undercut Turkish leverage with the United States. The timeline for an alternative force, backed by Turkey, to move on Raqqa is contingent on success in and around Al Bab. Following that, Ankara must again augment its forces in Syria to begin the 180 kilometer push south, a sequence of events that would delay the taking of Raqqa perhaps well into 2018.
The U.S. and Turkish governments have been in near-constant communication about Syria since 2011. The discussions for what would later be called Euphrates Shield began sometime in early 2015, according to open source press reports. The operation envisioned using local forces, backed by coalition air power and Turkish artillery, to take ISIS territory along the border. These forces, however, proved disorganized and incapable of taking and holding territory from the Islamic State.
The U.S. military, at various times, devoted all of its Turkey-based aircraft to support this mission, while Turkish artillery fired at Islamic State positions on a near daily basis. The plan failed and exposed key weaknesses: The fighters in the area were disorganized and often fled under fire; better-trained groups had to shuttle back and forth along the front line. This meant that, at various points, flanks were left open, which allowed ISIS to use suicide vehicle-born improvised explosive devices (SVBIED) to great tactical effect. The U.S. experience with these groups stands in stark contrast to the SDF, where assaults are coordinated and fighting units move when their commanders instruct them to do so—a seemingly simple thing, but vital when trying to “screen” or draw fire from embedded ISIS positions so that orbiting aircraft can identify and target frontline positions.
The sealing of the Turkish-Syrian border, however, remained of critical importance to the coalition. ISIS relied heavily on the border for foreign recruits and procured critical material for its manufacture of weapons and IEDs from inside Turkey. However, the Syrian forces acceptable to Turkey were incapable, while Ankara ruled out an SDF-led offensive in the area, beyond U.S. backed operations to take the Tishreen Dam in December 2015 and then Manbij with the SDF one year later. To assuage Turkish concerns, the coalition adopted a “visibility” policy with Turkey, wherein its liaison officer, as with the coalition in Qatar, and others at Incirlik and Ankara would watch SDF-led battles in the area in real-time after extensive briefings on all elements of the plan from senior U.S. officials.
However, the crux of the issue remained: Turkey did not offer a plan to force ISIS from its border strongholds, argued in favor of continued efforts to unite Arab forces in the area, and ruled out support for an SDF-led approach. The outcome was that the border remained open, allowing ISIS to have access to the border, from which it could infiltrate into Europe or rearm.
The Turkish government launched Euphrates Shield on August 24, 2016. The timing was not coincidental. One month earlier, a faction of the Turkish military revolted against the state but failed to gain power. The Turkish government blamed Fetullah Gülen, a U.S.-based Imam, for orchestrating the coup. The Turkish government, in response, has instrumentalized anti-Americanism to stoke domestic populist support and has consistently lied about the U.S. government’s response during and after the failed coup. The Turkish rhetoric appears to be intended to pressure Washington to hasten extradition proceedings for Gülen and to alter U.S. support for the SDF.
Former Vice President Joe Biden flew to Turkey on August 24 to express his solidarity with the Turkish people following the failed coup, the same day that Euphrates Shield started. U.S. intelligence agencies had learned of the pending invasion a week or so earlier, but Turkish officials waited to inform their American colleagues until a day or two before the planned start date. For the U.S. government, Euphrates Shield pushed the Islamic State from the Turkish border and closed off the group’s smuggling routes through Turkey. However, the second-order effects of the campaign threatened to upend the U.S.-backed plan for Raqqa and risked a Turkish-Syrian regime escalation. For these reasons, the U.S. administration pledged support for the early aspect of the campaign, but also sought to keep its goals limited to a twenty-kilometer incursion. The administration’s decision stemmed from a lack of communication with Turkish counterparts, a general concern about the operation being poorly planned, and little confidence in the armed groups being able to act as a capable ground force.
Euphrates Shield was under-resourced from the start, a reality that had plagued U.S.-Turkish discussion for much of 2015 about the ISIS-free zone, and that contributed to U.S. skepticism about the operation as whole. During these earlier discussions, the U.S. government suspected that Turkish pledges to generate enough forces to mount a serious military campaign were unrealistic. To support Euphrates Shield, Ankara sought to offset these known manpower issues by recruiting men from the refugee population inside of Turkey and offering weapons, training, and a guaranteed salary to incentivize participation. These efforts augmented numbers, but at the expense of training. Thus, better-trained units are shuffled along to the front line with ISIS to offset the weaknesses of other allied insurgent groups that cannot hold territory against frequent counterattack—the same issue that plagued earlier efforts to hold territory taken along the border before Turkey’s military intervention.
Turkey faced little resistance in the first hundred days of Euphrates Shield. ISIS had withdrawn from the sparsely populated villages along the border to Al Bab, a small city with more favorable terrain for defense. To blunt domestic criticism over the increased number of casualties in the battle to surround Al Bab, the Turkish government blamed the Obama Administration for withholding aerial support for Euphrates Shield.
This explanation was politically expedient, helping to presage the Turkish turn to accept joint operations with Russia—still a very hard sell inside the Turkish security apparatus. It was also intentionally misleading for the Turkish public. The Turkish air war for Al Bab is independent from the coalition. Turkish pilots flying missions in the area are not part of the daily Air Tasking Order (ATO), the document that lists sorties for a 24-hour period. This has been the case since the start of Euphrates Shield, a fact that underscores how Ankara made a unilateral decision to expand its military operation and fight with poorly trained militias.
The coalition, in turn, initially withheld air support in the area. This choice stemmed, in part, from Turkey’s unilateral decision-making, as well as from concerns that strikes in the area could detract from the focus on Islamic State. The Turkish government has threatened to expand the scope of Euphrates Shield to include SDF-held Manbij. The U.S. government has sought to prevent this outcome. An attack on Manbij would force the SDF to reallocate forces from the front with Raqqa, delaying the planned assault on the city. Further still, the task of deconfliction in the area is considerable: Turkish, Russian, regime, and now coalition aircraft are flying in the area. The regime, for example, has taken advantage of Russian strikes in the area to take territory west of the city and now shares a front line with Euphrates Shield forces, an outcome that de facto makes the two partners for the eventual taking of the city. In recent weeks, the coalition has begun to strike targets in the area. The intent is twofold: To help Turkey’s military and to manage Ankara, in order to prevent a Turkish effort to slow the SDF’s operation to take Raqqa.
Donald Trump has thus inherited a well-developed war plan, premised on the pairing of Special Operations forces with indigenous forces that are capable of taking and holding territory. President Trump will be soon presented with options to expand the war against the Islamic State, most likely with a menu of options ranging from the status quo to the insertion of regular U.S. ground forces. The President’s most likely course of action will be to continue the partnership with the SDF, while easing the rules of engagement to allow for more airstrikes to support the offensive. He could also choose to provide the SDF with heavier weapons; these are a military necessity to fight in urban areas but would be politically difficult because of the problems this option would cause with Ankara. The Turkish military is unlikely to play a role in taking Raqqa, although it has the means to slow down or complicate a U.S. offensive conducted in league with the SDF. The battle plan was not developed in a vacuum. It is the result of years of U.S. involvement in the Syria conflict and, since October 2015, a military presence on the ground.
Trump, therefore, has little offer Turkey. And Turkey has little to offer Trump. Trump’s decisions in Syria will ultimately reflect his Administration’s prioritization of his self-declared fight against “radical Islam.” Raqqa remains the target, and logic dictates more of the same from the new Administration.