Experts React: Turkey’s Intervention, U.S. Diplomacy, and the Crisis in Syria
October 18, 2019
When quick decisions are made in a very complex and vitally important region, it is difficult to immediately understand the far-reaching geostrategic implications of those decisions. CSIS scholars have come together to offer brief reflections from their respective portfolios on the most consequential impacts of President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria.
It is impossible to describe in 500 words the complicated, mistake-laden post-Cold War history of U.S.-Turkey relations or the decisions taken (or not taken) by the U.S. government over the past eight years regarding the Syrian civil war and its regional implications. More significant scholarship is required for those tasks, but this complex history is a testament to U.S. credibility and trustworthiness as an international actor.
Trust and credibility are foundational elements in human relations as well as in international affairs—and in particular, alliances. Because the United States is the backbone of the international alliance system (by its own design 70 years ago), U.S. actions have repercussions on other countries and populations. When trust begins to erode, nations will find ways to test or increase pressure on U.S. commitments or seek other guarantees that the United States will fulfill these commitments (such as requesting U.S. forces be present in the host nation). When credibility and trust evaporate, nations realign themselves with more or less trustworthy or more expedient, results-oriented nations. Trust is destroyed quickly but can only be rebuilt slowly and cautiously over time.
Can America’s word in international affairs be trusted? Historians may come to view the withdrawal decision on October 6 as the breaking point for U.S. credibility. Trust in the United States has been in a state of steady erosion for well over the past decade, but this singular act, as well as recent suggestions that the United States will withdraw forces from other regions, has warned all U.S. allies that nothing is certain and nothing—even strong U.S. economic ties and U.S. forces on the ground—is guaranteed. These decisions have also inspired adversaries who have identified tactical opportunities to fill the vacuum that the United States leaves behind. As these adversaries more fully enter a region, U.S. allies step back, and the United States becomes a more insecure country.
Director and Senior Associate, Turkey ProjectPresident Donald Trump’s fateful October 6 telephone conversation with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which he committed himself to finally implementing his long-standing intention to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, effectively cleared the way for the launching of a military operation by Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces three days later against the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in control of northern Syria east of the Euphrates. Trump’s action, which aimed at eradicating the long-standing irritant stemming from the tactical U.S. engagement with the YPG against the Islamic State on the U.S.-Turkish agenda and thus to clear the way to smoother relations, instead created additional convulsions in the troubled alliance as well as in U.S. domestic politics.
The move set off an unprecedented firestorm of criticism in Washington, most notably from Trump’s congressional allies previously reluctant to criticize him openly, for abandoning the Syrian Kurds, which forced Trump to respond to the Turkish military incursion with a preliminary set of sanctions designed to underline his willingness to “destroy the Turkish economy” if Erdogan did not end the operation. In a further effort to placate his critics while simultaneously reinforcing his message to Erdogan, Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and new National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien to Ankara to meet with Erdogan on October 17.
Trump undercut their leverage the day before their meeting with Erdogan through rambling public comments as well as the release of the poorly drafted and undiplomatic letter he had sent to Erdogan on the first day of the operation in which he had called on him to negotiate with the YPG, which Turkey sees as a terrorist extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) it has been fighting for decades. Nonetheless, emerging after marathon talks at the Presidential Palace, Pence was able to announce an agreement on “a 120-hour pause” in Turkish military operations to “allow the withdrawal of YPG” from a 20-mile deep “safe zone” beyond the Turkish border as Trump had originally suggested to Erdogan. Pence added that the military operation would be “halted” after completion of the withdrawal when the U.S. sanctions would also be lifted. Significantly Pence did not address Erdogan’s stated goal of resettling up to 2 million of the nearly 4 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.
It remains to be seen whether the YPG, which feels it has been abandoned by Trump, and has struck a deal with the Syrian regime under Russian auspices involving the return of government forces into the Kurdish area, will fully implement its part of the deal as Pence claimed. It is also not clear how Russia, whose position in Syria has been immeasurably strengthened by the abrupt U.S. military withdrawal, will respond. It is noteworthy that Erdogan is due to visit Russian president Vladimir Putin on October 22 prior to his previously scheduled meeting in Washington with Trump on November 13.
Immediate attention will now turn to Congress to see how it will react. On October 16, the House of Representatives approved, with the support of the majority of Republican members, a resolution opposing Trump’s decision to withdraw and calling for continued support for Syrian Kurds. There may still be additional congressional moves, most notably the proposed Countering Turkish Aggression Act of 2019 drawn up by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), which includes sanctions on Turkish institutions and officials, prohibition on military transactions, and the imposition of secondary sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Needless to say, such congressional action will only complicate the management of this difficult relationship.
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program
President Donald Trump’s sudden decision to abandon positions along the Turkish-Syrian frontier and facilitate Turkish troops’ movement into Kurdish areas of Syria has deeply unsettled U.S. allies and partners in the Middle East. Enthusiasm for the Trump administration, which ran especially high in the Persian Gulf in the months following Trump’s election, has plummeted. Leaders are increasingly doubtful of the value of U.S. security guarantees and will seek to diversify their security and economic relationships—mostly with Russia and China but also with France, the United Kingdom, and India—to compensate.
Trump’s May 2017 visit to Saudi Arabia was the high-water mark of Middle Eastern enthusiasm for the president. His skepticism toward the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, his hostility toward the Muslim Brotherhood, and his disinterest in promoting more democracy and better governance in the Middle East resonated with governments that were still shuddering after the Arab Spring. Regional governments that had felt both disdained and abandoned by the Obama administration believed that Trump represented a return to the status quo ante.
Trump’s recent action on Syria, and his inaction in response to the presumed Iranian strike on Saudi oil facilities on September 14, has tipped regional governments’ attitudes toward wariness. At issue is not only Trump’s sudden decision to turn away from military allies who had fought valiantly and effectively alongside U.S. troops; the bigger issue is that the move is part of a deliberate U.S. effort to reduce its presence in the Middle East just as Iran is growing more aggressive. In an October 9 tweet, Trump lamented “The United States has spent EIGHT TRILLION DOLLARS fighting and policing in the Middle East. Thousands of our Great Soldiers have died or been badly wounded. Millions of people have died on the other side. GOING INTO THE MIDDLE EAST IS THE WORST DECISION EVER MADE IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY!”
Arab diplomats in Washington have expressed shock at such a sudden change in U.S. policy, and they nervously question the reliability of U.S. security guarantees. Bilateral trade with the United States remains robust (Saudi Arabia trades about $50 billion with the United States, and the United Arab Emirates about half that), but wealthy states in the region had always believed that trade—and especially arms purchases—helped guarantee a U.S. security umbrella against foreign enemies.
Tensions with Iran may further accelerate this tendency. U.S. efforts to bring a “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran have resulted in more aggressive Iranian behavior in the region, but Arab government officials worry both that U.S. deterrence has failed and that the United States does not have the appetite to reinforce it. The UAE began sending feelers to the Iranians last June that they wanted to reduce tensions, and Saudi Arabia recently has sought to use Iraqi and Pakistani intermediaries to lower tensions. Their reasoning is not that Iran is any less dangerous but rather that the U.S. confrontation strategy has left them vulnerable.
Middle Eastern governments are reluctantly reaching the conclusion that the Obama administration’s impulse to distance the United States from regional conflicts has continued under the Trump administration and is likely to be an enduring feature of U.S. policy.
Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic; and Director, Europe Program
The European Union has historically struggled to anchor Turkey closer to Europe after it joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952. Turkey’s first attempt at acceding to European membership came as early as 1987. Had Turkey become a member of the European Union, it would have been the second-largest EU country by population (after Germany) with the second-largest representation in the European Parliament. The EU budget would have been dramatically reconfigured to meet Turkey’s substantial regional and infrastructure needs. The size and magnitude of such a cultural enlargement for the European Union—even under the best political circumstances—was very unlikely. In its place, a lesser institutional relationship was created: the EU-Turkey customs union, formed in 1995, which encouraged Turkish imports from and exports to the European Union. Turkey became an official EU candidate country in 1999, and the European Union opened formal accession talks with Ankara in 2005, although these talks have long since stalled. The conventional wisdom held that that Turkey needed Europe more than Europe needed Turkey.
But the relationship was dramatically inverted between 2015 and 2016 due to the Syrian migration crisis and the transit of Islamic State fighters to Europe through Turkey. Turkey’s steady absorption of over 3 million Syrian refugees became increasingly untenable after Russia militarily intervened in support of the Syrian regime. Nearly 2 million Syrian and other migrants fled to Turkey by land and across the Aegean Sea to seek safety in Europe. The European Union ultimately approved and funded a $6 billion agreement to help defray the humanitarian costs of Turkey hosting Syrian refugees, in addition to providing a path to visa liberalization for Turks in exchange for Turkey’s agreement to take back migrants. The movement of Islamic State fighters to Europe heightened fears of additional terrorist attacks across the continent. Now the tables had turned, President Erdogan had the upper hand in the relationship and frequently threatened EU leaders with increased migrant arrivals if Ankara did not receive sufficient funds or support. Turkey’s deepening democratic crisis reinforced its drift away from Europe.
When Turkish forces entered northern Syria on October 9, the European Union struggled to develop a unanimous statement. This was due in part to the United Kingdom and its inability to form a position in a timely way as it remains consumed by Brexit—not necessarily because it aimed to create trouble or due to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s romanticism of Turkey. In the end, an EU statement was issued that recommends individual EU members stop arms sales to Turkey, though the European Union itself remains conspicuously quiet perhaps due to the recent uptick in migrant crossings from Turkey into Greece (close to 10,000 migrants arrived in Greece in August, the most significant increase in over three years). European interior ministries are also very concerned that the Islamic State fighters held in Northern Syria could be released and endanger Europeans, and some of these fighters are EU citizens. It should be noted that the European Union is in a transitional moment between an old and a new Commission, which further complicates decisionmaking.
Events in northern Syria underscore the European Union’s relative weakness when it comes to putting forward new policies to address a grave risk and demonstrates the Union’s continued political vulnerability to increased migration flows from Turkey to Europe as well as concerns about the release of Islamic State fighters. Through its decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria, the United States has fueled the risk of destabilization in Europe, which in turn weakens an important U.S. economic and security partner. Importantly, this also increases Europe’s susceptibility to Chinese and Russian malign influence. This is a strategic miscalculation.
Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, International Security Program, and Director, Cooperative Defense Project
Turkey’s intervention and the rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeast Syria will have grave consequences for U.S. defense objectives. First, despite the ceasefire brokered between the United States and Turkey, the United States will lose operational and intelligence access to tracking Islamic State networks. Coalition forces, such as UK and French allies, are also having to withdraw due to their interdependency on U.S. and YPG forces. Relationships with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes the YPG at its core along with majority Arab and minority community fighters, to maintain intelligence and operational access will be near-impossible to sustain given the lack of trust and credibility in the United States and an increasing fear of retribution by the Bashar al-Assad regime and its allies. SDF control over Islamic State detainees is not sustainable, with reports of prison breaks already occurring. Detainees will soon either join the ranks of the Islamic State insurgency or be transferred to the Assad government’s control. Assad has a history of using extremists to destabilize neighbors and to taint domestic opposition to legitimatize his oppression. Second, although a small garrison of U.S. forces will remain for now at al-Tanf near the Jordanian border, the United States and its allies will have significantly reduced their ability to deter Iranian proxy expansion in northeast Syria, already present in the east in the Deir Ezzor region, and gather intelligence on their networks.
Third, Russia ultimately will control airspace over the northeast, even if Turkey retains a presence inside Syria’s border, closing U.S. and allied ability to conduct aerial strikes on Islamic State targets. In Syria’s northwest, the United States has conducted airstrikes on high-value al-Qaeda affiliates on a one-off basis presumably with prior deconfliction with Russia. Yet, a return of the Assad regime to the northeast will likely boost Islamic State recruitment among Sunni Arab communities, whose alternative may be death, torture, or imprisonment for opposing the regime. Russian control over the northeast will greatly strengthen its position in negotiating Syria’s political settlement and fuel a regional narrative that Russia is a superior partner and powerbroker to the United States. It is a win for Russia in the strategic competition with the United States and a blow to the Trump administration’s own National Defense Strategy. Fourth, the credibility of global U.S. alliances and partnerships is in doubt. The U.S. alliance with Turkey is under unprecedented pressure. No military task around the world can be undertaken without U.S. alliances and partnerships.
Given these implications, U.S. leverage and defense options are limited. Immediate next steps should first include pressuring Turkey, Russia, and their proxies to protect civilians, refrain from indiscriminate targeting, and enable humanitarian access. Second, the United States should negotiate air space access with Russia over northeast Syria to target terrorist cells. Third, it should conduct a strategic review of the bilateral relationship with Turkey. Fourth, it should bolster U.S. security cooperation with Israel, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon to counter Iranian proxy and Islamic State expansion. Fifth, it should seek to deter the Assad regime from targeting civilians. Retaliatory strikes should only be used as a last resort. Finally, it should expose the predatory behavior of the Assad government, Russia, and Iran via information operations. All of these steps should be undertaken in concert with U.S. allies to mitigate damage and maximize impact.
Deputy Director, Europe ProgramThe condemnation of Turkey’s latest operation into Syria—the ironically dubbed Operation Peace Spring—has been swift and near universal. In the United States, both Democratic and Republican leadership in Congress have called for an end to “Turkey’s destabilizing actions in northeast Syria,” and there is bipartisan support for congressional sanctions. Similarly, EU leaders have condemned Turkey’s “military action” with a number of member states suspending weapons exports to Turkey. While Russia stopped short of condemning the operation, it too has urged restraint. The Arab League labeled the offensive an “invasion.”
Yet in some instances, the reproach has moved beyond criticism of the current operation to a broader questioning of whether Turkey still shares the interests and values of its fellow NATO allies and European neighbors. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he had warned Turkey that proceeding with the incursion would not only damage U.S.-Turkey relations but also their “staying in NATO.” While there is no provision in the treaty for suspending or expelling a member, Esper’s statement reflects a sentiment shared by many NATO members—namely that Turkey’s behavior in past few years, including its purchase of the Russian S-400 system and President Erdogan’s walking back of democracy and civic society in Turkey, are inconsistent with the principles Turkey signed up for upon joining NATO in 1952.
This line of reasoning is dangerous and short-sighted. It takes anger and frustration over a uniquely complex set of current events and extrapolates a general conclusion about the broader relationship. Such a faulty generalization overlooks historical ties between Turkey and the West; Turkey’s critical geopolitical location at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia; and a range of shared strategic interests from deterring Russia to managing instability in the Balkans, Middle East, and North Africa.
If the NATO-Turkey relationship is to emerge intact from this difficult period, it is helpful to recall a few of the reasons why NATO needs Turkey and Turkey needs NATO:
- Capability. Turkey brings significant capacity and capability to NATO. It has the second largest land army in NATO and is one of largest spenders in the alliance. In 2018, Turkey paid $101 million (€89.8 million) into NATO common funding and is one of the few allies meeting the 2 percent of GDP defense spending target. For its part, Turkey benefits from the deterrent value provided by the collective military power of NATO. Absent the NATO security umbrella, Russian and Iranian manipulation of and aggression against Turkey and its interests would go unchecked. Turkey’s membership in NATO also gives it access to Western military equipment, to include lucrative coproduction and workshare arrangements for Turkish industry.
- Access. With its geostrategic location between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, Turkish bases facilitate U.S. and European countries’ access to the Middle East and Black Sea as witnessed in the first Gulf War and in the current effort against the Islamic State. Since 1936, Turkey has controlled access to two international passages—the Dardanelles and the Bosporus—which connect the Black Sea with the Aegean and Mediterranean and are critical in controlling commerce and military movements in and out of the area. Turkey hosts the NATO Land Command at Izmir and several radars that provide valuable early warning against ballistic missile attacks. In hosting NATO forces and assets on its territory, Turkey increases its relative weight in NATO decisionmaking and command structures.
- Deterring Russia. Russia’s strategic objective is to divide the United States and Turkey and to degrade NATO. Since the 2016 coup attempt in Ankara, Moscow has sought to improve relations with Turkey by investing diplomatically, economically, and militarily. Likewise, Turkey has used its relationship with Russia to pressure NATO and the European Union. Yet beyond this transactionalism, the two countries are historical rivals (dating back to the imperial days of the Ottoman Empire) and, as such, share few common strategic objectives. Upon joining NATO and throughout the Cold War, Turkey was vital in countering Soviet influence in Central Asia and the Middle East. This remains true today as Russia works with the Assad regime and Iran to solidify its interests and access in the Middle East, often in direct opposition to Turkish long-term interests. A similar divergence of interests is evident in Ukraine and Azerbaijan, where Turkey opposes the Russian occupation of Crimea and Nagorno-Karabakh, respectively.
- Managing Instability. Turkey has been a reliable contributor to peacekeeping operations in the Middle East and Africa (e.g., NATO anti-piracy missions off the Gulf of Aden) and is key to managing the humanitarian aspects of these crises. In Afghanistan, Turkey is one of four Framework Nations (along with Germany, Italy, and the United States) leading military and humanitarian efforts in the various regions. As a result of the Syrian Civil War, Turkey now hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees and will be instrumental in the delivery of humanitarian aid, reconstruction efforts, and eventual refugee resettlement and return. While somewhat distracted by its domestic terrorism fight against the PKK, Turkey has been and will remain instrumental in working with NATO and EU countries in the counterterrorism fight through our close intelligence and law enforcement relationships.
Kimberly Flowers and Jacob Kurtzer on humanitarian access
Civilian casualties are mounting. The Kurdish-led health administration announced over 200 civilian deaths, including 18 children, and more than 650 people wounded. Proxy forces have engaged in looting of civilian property in Afrin, and local activists have reported unlawful arrests, accounts of torture, and disappearances. Some proxy forces deliberately released Islamic State prisoners to “fuel chaos," portending extreme humanitarian consequences.
Limited routes for movement potentially put populations further at risk. The M4 highway, a transit route for humanitarian goods, is closed due to ongoing fighting, impacting access to affected populations and the ability to move essential commodities. Humanitarian organizations suspended operations due to the ongoing volatility. Shelling near the Tel Abyad hospital caused the evacuation of staff and interruption of emergency health operations. Hassakeh city water facilities that serve nearly 400,000 people have also been impacted, severely limiting access to clean drinking water.
Exploitation of deconfliction efforts by Syrian and Russian militaries has deepened mistrust between humanitarian organizations, the United Nations, and the government of Syria. Targeted attacks on hospitals and clinics, including those identified in deconfliction lists, demonstrate a disregard for international humanitarian law and humanitarian norms and raise serious concerns for future humanitarian action.
Access throughout Syria for humanitarian organizations will be further complicated as the Syrian government reasserts territorial control. Humanitarian organizations navigate the shifting conflict landscape by working with the consent of the Assad government, which raises questions about the impartiality and independence of operations, or through cross-border operations authorized by UN Security Council resolutions. Despite concerted efforts of humanitarian organizations, many operations based out of Damascus are challenged by Syrian government misappropriation and politicization. Credible reports have outlined the way Syrian authorities have restricted access and used assistance to punish or reward populations for loyalty.
Responding to the needs of the civilian population remains the responsibility of the Syrian government. Syrian authorities and their supporters should be held to account for meeting those needs. In the absence of a Syrian response, however, international humanitarian assistance is vital to sustain the civilian population, a challenge that will be increasingly difficult in the aftermath of the past week’s developments.
Harold Brown Chair; Director, Transnational Threats Project; and Senior Adviser, International Security Program
The U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria and the unfolding events have serious implications for Sunni and Shia extremists, including Iran.
First, and most immediately, the U.S. withdrawal forces Washington’s main ground ally against the Islamic State, the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to shift away from conducting mop-up operations and intelligence collection against the Islamic State to fighting Turkish forces. This shift in SDF priorities has serious consequences because the Islamic State has not been defeated. There are still between 15,000 and 30,000 Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq, which are able to move across a porous Iraqi-Syrian border. The Islamic State has been attempting to rebuild its networks in Syria as part of its desert (or sahraa) strategy. Without a major U.S. ground force to fight the Islamic State, and with continuing Syrian grievances against the Assad government, the Islamic State may be able to resurge. In addition, Islamic State fighters and supporters are escaping from SDF detention centers in Syria and may continue to do so if these centers are shut down or abandoned. There are roughly 10,000 Islamic State fighters housed at al-Hawl camp in Syria alone, along with 70,000 internally displaced persons.
However, the Islamic State is not the only Sunni jihadist group present in Syria. Al-Qaeda also presents a significant threat. There are between 12,000 and 15,000 Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham fighters in Idlib as well as another 1,500 to 2,000 operating under Tanzim Hurras al-Din’s banner. Both have connections to al-Qaeda. Overall, the presence of up to nearly 50,000 jihadist fighters from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda suggests that terrorism will remain a serious problem in Syria for the foreseeable future. With a U.S. withdrawal, the terrorism problem may become even more acute.
Second, Shia extremists—and Iran more broadly—will likely benefit from the U.S. withdrawal in northern Syria. Since the Syrian war began in 2011, Iran has provided substantial assistance to the Assad regime and helped organize, train, and fund over 100,000 Shia fighters. Up to 3,000 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) fighters helped plan and execute campaigns such as the 2016 Battle of Aleppo. The IRGC-QF is the Iranian government’s primary paramilitary arm. In addition, Lebanese Hezbollah deployed up to 8,000 fighters to Syria.
The U.S. withdrawal provides an opportunity for Iran—including the IRGC-QF and Lebanese Hezbollah—to expand and strengthen its presence in Syria. Today, the IRGC-QF works with thousands of trained fighters in Syria operating as local militias. Many of these groups have advanced stand-off weapons capable of hitting nearby countries like Israel. In response to the U.S. withdrawal, Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli military intelligence, said: “It goes to the role of America as a superpower in the Middle East. If Americans leave, it’s easier for Iran, it’s easier for Bashar al-Assad, it’s easier for Hezbollah. All of these are our enemies.” With a declining U.S. presence in Syria, Iran will likely increase its power and influence. One of the most important looming questions is whether the United States will withdraw all forces in Syria. A U.S. military withdrawal from southern Syria, particularly the U.S. base at al-Tanf, would allow Iran to move weapons, people, money, and equipment through a southern land corridor.
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program
Ankara’s pivot to Moscow is the product of both long-term shifts and political expediency. It runs counter to centuries of strategic rivalry, and it comes even as the two countries continue maneuvering for advantage in their shared neighborhood. On Syria and Ukraine, as on trade, energy, and defense cooperation, Turkey has subordinated its strategic autonomy to reinforce its alignment with Russia. That partnership is likely to become deeper—and less equal—as a result of the U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accepted this unequal partnership with Russia because of a perception that the United States and its European partners no longer regard Turkey as an ally. The U.S. refusal to extradite the cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Erdogan blames for a July 2016 coup attempt, and military support for the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)—an offshoot of the PKK, which has conducted a long-running insurgency in Turkey—only reinforce this fear. From Erdogan’s perspective, Russia may be a strategic rival, but it is one that pursues concrete interests rather than grand schemes, does not moralize, accepts Erdogan as a legitimate interlocutor, and acts consistently to further its interests. President Vladimir Putin, in other words, is someone Erdogan can do business with.
Syria has posed the biggest challenge to this partnership. Ever since Russia imposed economic sanctions and bombed Turkish-backed militias in response to the downing of a Russian jet in November 2015, Turkey has had to trim its ambitions in line with Russian concerns. It agreed to participate in the Astana format, a peace process involving Russia and Iran parallel to the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva. The Astana talks led to the formation of four de-escalation zones where rebel groups (including those backed by Turkey) were to be safe from attack—leaving Turkey powerless when Russian and Syrian government forces nonetheless recaptured three of the zones. Despite the threat of sanctions, Turkey also purchased the Russian S-400 air defense system, which has dramatically complicated Turkey’s relationship with the United States and NATO. Meanwhile, the success of the Syrian army, backed by Russia and Iran, has forced Turkey to drop its ambition to oust Assad.
Russia’s interest in peeling Turkey away from its partnership with the United States and NATO nevertheless led it to make some concessions. Russian support allowed Turkey to send troops into northern Syria to push Kurdish forces back from the border. Ankara also secured Russian backing for its occupation of Afrin from the PYD in early 2018—in part because Russia wanted to send a message to the Kurds about the consequences of their cooperation with the United States. Turkey also secured Russian agreement for its forces to maintain the Idlib de-escalation zone in exchange for expelling or disarming jihadist rebels in the area.
The precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria now tilts the balance further in Russia’s favor. The PYD, which Turkey regards as a terrorist group, is likely to fall further under Moscow’s sway, allowing Russia to play Turkey and the Kurds off one another. Already, the PYD has accepted the restoration of Assad’s control over northeastern Syria. Turkish-backed militias are racing to secure as much of the region as possible, but Russian forces have positioned themselves between the Kurds, Syrian forces, and the pro-Turkish militias, casting Moscow as the main powerbroker. The U.S. withdrawal also makes Russia’s ambition of reuniting Syria under Assad more achievable, leaving the status of the remaining de-escalation zone in Idlib and Turkish controlled pockets in northern Syria—not to mention the millions of Syrian refugees still in Turkey—open to question. U.S. efforts to sanction Turkey for its offensive into northern Syria will only reinforce Erdogan’s view of the United States as a hostile actor and create a new community of interests with Russia.
Moscow’s success in Syria has already surpassed what even most Russian analysts predicted. In the long run, Turkey’s alienation from the United States and growing dependence on Russia may prove to be Moscow’s most valuable triumph.
Senior Adviser and Scholl Chair in International Business
The effects on the United States of sanctions on Turkey could be minimal or significant depending on what actually ends up being implemented. The sanctions announced by the administration include raising the tariff on Turkish steel imports back up from 25 percent to 50 percent (Trump had lowered it from 50 percent last May), halting discussions with Turkey on what the president characterized as a $100 billion trade deal, and imposing sanctions on several specific individuals. It appears that the individual sanctions will not be imposed as a result of the ceasefire announced October 17. The fate of the steel tariffs and future trade deals is uncertain.
Increasing steel tariffs will at the margin provide some small benefit to the U.S. steel industry, although since Turkey is a relatively small exporter (the United States imported just 1 million metric tons of steel from Turkey out of a total of 30.5 million metric tons imported in 2018) the impact will not be large. Similarly, the sanctions on individuals may have an impact on them but will not noticeably affect the U.S. economy.
The talks over a $100 billion trade deal are apparently focused on increasing U.S. exports to Turkey. Since the deal has not been consummated, and now will not be, at least until the president changes his mind, it represents an opportunity foregone rather than any actual measurable loss to the U.S. economy. Had an agreement been reached at that level, it would have been significant since our exports to Turkey last year were only $10.3 billion, although the time period over which any new exports would occur would be crucial to determining impact. One hundred billion dollars in one or two years would represent an enormous expansion of trade; over ten years, it would be less dramatic. Without it, the status quo will continue to prevail, although it is logical to assume that trade in both directions will decline because of the difficult relationship between the two countries.
While the administration’s sanctions will not have a large impact, it appears that Congress may consider legislation that would ban arms sales to Turkey for use in Syria; impose individual sanctions on a number of Turkish leaders, including the president, vice president, and defense minister; and sanction Turkish financial institutions that facilitate defense transactions, including the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. If enacted into law, that would be a significant development. In 2017, the United States sold Turkey $341 million worth of military equipment, and in 2018, the United States sold Turkey more than $136 million, which together represent some 70 percent of total Turkish arms imports. Halting those sales would adversely impact the U.S. companies making defense equipment, and it would complicate Turkey’s efforts to maintain its defense capabilities, particularly if the European Union implements a similar ban.
It should be noted, however, that these bills have not been passed, and even if they are, the president may well veto them. He has not said that specifically, but his failure to impose such a sanction on his own initiative, as well as his failure to implement sanctions mandated by law due to Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 system, suggest he would be reluctant to approve this kind of sanctions bill.
Associate Fellow, Middle East Program
Turkey’s incursion in northeast Syria was motivated by a perception of both internal and external threats. Anti-refugee sentiment has soared in Turkey in recent months, and President Erdogan is eager to reduce the refugee population sharply in order to bolster his domestic standing.
Erdogan announced that one of the primary aims of “Operation Peace Spring” is to resettle 1 million Syrian refugees. In the longer term, Erdogan plans to use the buffer zone he hopes to establish in Syria to resettle the remainder of the 3.65 million Syrians that Turkey hosts. Turkey not only hopes to push the refugee population outside its borders but also to use the predominantly Arab refugees resettled there as a buffer between the Kurdish population in southeast Turkey and Syrian Kurds. This ambitious project would require the construction of 140 new villages and 10 towns, and the first phase alone would cost $26.4 billion.
The European Union has rejected Erdogan’s calls to fund the resettlement project and warned against Turkish attempts at ethnic engineering. But funding is not the only issue. Although the U.S.-Turkish ceasefire agreement appears to grant Erdogan the ability to fulfil his plan, he must now gain Russia’s approval, which will be harder to achieve. President Putin previously warned that Russia would only permit Turkey to advance 5-10 kilometers inside Syrian territory, an area insufficient for the resettlement plans. Erdogan’s ambitious resettlement plans are slipping out of his reach.
Inside Turkey, the future of Syrians is growing more precarious. As popular sentiment against them rises, they face increasing restrictions on movement and work. Meanwhile, Erdogan is trying to weaponize them, threatening to “open the gates” for large numbers of refugees to migrate to Europe if they do not return to Syria.
Syrian refugees’ problems are not limited to Turkey. The U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria will make life more difficult for Syrian refugees living elsewhere in the Middle East. As the Assad government further consolidates its territorial control in Syria, it is now only a matter of time before Arab and Western states restore relations with Damascus. Normalization of ties with Assad will create a presumption that the situation in Syria is safe and accelerate political pressure in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and elsewhere to force Syrians back. It is not clear that the Assad government wants many people back, especially those whose loyalty it doubts. In addition, many refugees have little to return to as their property has been destroyed or confiscated during the war. Documented cases of returnees being arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and even executed show that refugee return is not yet safe. For Syrian refugees, then, the Turkish incursion into Syria and the U.S. withdrawal means things are about to get even harder.