Turkey and the United States after the Istanbul Airport Attack: Still Divided by Syria?

The horrific terrorist assault on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on June 28, which killed 44 people, prompted Turkish officials to blame the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as after a number of similar deadly attacks in Turkey during the past year. Although ISIS has not claimed any of these attacks, it is clear that Turkey’s vulnerability to the scourge of terrorism has increased dramatically with the spread northwards of radical jihadist violence from Syria. President Barack Obama called President Recep Tayyip Erdogan within hours of the outrage, “offered any and all assistance,” and “pledged to continue working with Turkey to fight terrorism.” However, despite the optimism of some in Washington since the attack relating to the possibility of growing convergence between the two countries in the fight against ISIS, it seems likely that closer cooperation will be hampered by their continuing differences on Syria.

The divergence, which has potentially serious negative implications for the U.S.-Turkish alliance, may widen further with the apparently imminent fall of the ISIS-held town of Manbij in northern Syria to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) supported by Washington over Ankara’s objections. For Ankara, the SDF is merely a cover for the Syrian Democratic Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it views as extensions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK.) Turkey has consistently refrained from giving precedence to the joint campaign against ISIS over its efforts against PKK terrorism, which it has been fighting on and off in a costly war for over three decades, including in its ongoing campaign since July 2015. Lending indirect credence to Turkish concerns about the composition of the SDF, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, admitted at a Senate hearing on April 28 that Arab fighters in the SDF constituted only “about 20 percent.”

The SDF has been conducting an operation since the end of May to expel ISIS out of territory it occupies within the 98-kilometer-long “Manbij pocket” immediately beyond the Turkish-Syrian border between the two Kurdish cantons of Afrin and Kobane. The move followed an earlier push south by the SDF from Kobane toward the self-proclaimed ISIS “capital” of Raqqa. The United States has been providing invaluable assistance through targeted airstrikes, as well as special forces on the ground.

Its control of the pocket has long given ISIS a lifeline to Jarablus on the Syrian-Turkish border and beyond. In a White House press briefing on June 10, Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk emphasized the significance of the campaign by saying, “Once Manbij is taken away from ISIL, it will really entirely cut off their ability to move from Raqqa and to move fighters, to threaten us and our partners and our homelands…Manbij is where we believe the Paris attackers, the Brussels attackers, they all kind of pulsed through this area from Raqqa up to Manbij, and then out to the capitals where they organized their attack.” On June 28, he was even more explicit about the goals: “The operation in Manbij is about isolating Raqqa and after Manbij we will move on Raqqa.”

After having long put the priority in its anti-ISIS campaign on Iraq and the goal of ultimately pushing the group out of Mosul, the Obama administration has quietly switched to focusing on Syria and capturing Raqqa. This was due to a great extent to the continuing limitations of the Iraqi Army, the unwillingness of the Iraqi Kurdish forces to fight beyond their region, the unavoidable sectarian complications associated with the involvement of Iraqi Shia militias and the obvious difficulties of taking back and controlling a large city like Mosul. The much smaller Raqqa is clearly an easier target, particularly as the Syrian Kurdish forces, who had proven their ability to confront and defeat ISIS at Kobane, are close to the town and eager to cooperate with the United States. The tactical change of policy was apparently confirmed at a December 14, 2015, meeting at the Pentagon chaired by Obama.

The Manbij operation has also underlined the shift in the overall U.S. policy on Syria to focus on the immediate ISIS threat rather than on any of the many other aspects of the ongoing civil war. Given Obama’s stated aversion to the reintroduction into the Middle East of large numbers of U.S. forces, as in Afghanistan and Iraq during his predecessor’s tenure, the implementation of his stated goal to “degrade and destroy” ISIS required other “boots on the ground.” With Turkey unwilling or unable to use its huge army in a coordinated campaign with the United States in the pursuit of that objective—something Obama made a point of publicly noting in his revealing Atlantic interview published on March 10—the Syrian Kurdish gambit became even more attractive to U.S. policymakers and commanders.

The developing but discreet tactical alliance between Washington and the Syrian Kurds had first come into the open with the visit to Kobane of McGurk on January 30. It became even more visible with the visit on May 21 by General Joseph Votel, the new commander of U.S. Central Command. Accompanied by a group of American journalists, Votel flew into one of the two airstrips recently constructed in the Kurdish canton to facilitate the provision of U.S. assistance only a few weeks after moving to his new assignment from Special Forces Command. Following his meeting with local commanders and U.S. special forces advising them, Votel commented “I left with increased confidence in their capabilities and our ability to support them” and added “I think that model is working and working well.”

Although Votel flew to Ankara immediately after his visit to explain the U.S. strategy directly, the model adopted by Washington found little favor in the Turkish capital. General Yasar Guler, the deputy chief of the Turkish General Staff, commented skeptically after the visit, “Do not be surprised if the YPG lets you down when the fight against ISIS gets tough,” while reiterating the unchanging Turkish advice for the United States: “to support the moderate opposition instead to clear this line of ISIS.” The growing Turkish sense of resentment over the intensifying U.S.-PYD/YPG relationship was reinforced by photos published on May 25 of U.S. soldiers in northern Syria wearing YPG insignia. Erdogan commented on May 28, “I condemn the support the U.S. is currently giving to the PYD and the YPG. This is not what was promised us. I believe that politics should be honest. Therefore, those who are friend to us, and with us in NATO should not and cannot send their own soldiers to Syria with YPG insignia.”

Turkish opposition to U.S. cooperation with the Syrian Kurds dates back to October 2014 when Obama authorized airdrops to the YPG forces in Kobane besieged by ISIS immediately after a difficult phone conversation with Erdogan. The action was promptly denounced by Ankara, which then issued warnings that any advances westward across the Euphrates by the YPG would constitute crossing a Turkish “red line.” On June 27, 2015, for example, Erdogan warned “We will never allow the establishment of a state in Syria’s north and our south. We will continue our fight in this regard no matter what it costs.” On February 15, then–Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu followed up by saying “Turkey’s position is clear: The YPG will not pass to the west of the Euphrates River and to the east of Afrin.”

Turkish concerns stem partly from fears that additional gains by the PYD/YPG, which has taken advantage of the Syrian conflict to establish autonomous control throughout most of northern Syria, which Syrian Kurds call Rojava, would further reduce Turkey’s ability to influence events beyond its border through its links with the various opposition groups it has been backing since the beginning of the conflict. In a speech on May 28, Erdogan denounced “those who work to surround our southern borders by using the PYD terrorist organization and aim at cutting off Turkey’s links with the Middle East and North Africa.”

To be sure, by establishing a corridor from Kobane to the other Kurdish canton of Afrin at the western end of the Manbij pocket, the Syrian Kurds would control a contiguous area across northern Syria below the Turkish border. Ankara is concerned that this would also help to bolster the PKK in Turkey through the provision of fighters and arms, while creating another safe haven alongside its main base in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq, as well as a possible model for the Turkish Kurds. Fears that arms provided to the Syrian Kurds by the United States would find their way into the hands of the PKK in Turkey were heightened following the shooting down of a Turkish military helicopter in Hakkari in southeastern Turkey by a surface-to-air missile on May 13, even though Erdogan publicly blamed Russia.

Having gone so far as to directly challenge Obama on this issue on February 8 by saying “Is it me who is your partner, or the terrorist in Kobane?” Erdogan made a last ditch effort for an adjustment in U.S. policy during his visit to Washington at the end of March for the Nuclear Security Summit. However, the proposal he subsequently revealed that he had made in his meetings with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry for the United States to use Turkmen and Arab forces trained by Turkey against ISIS instead of the Syrian Kurds failed to dissuade the Obama administration from proceeding with its plans. Frequent Turkish reminders that the United States, just like Turkey, views the PKK as a terrorist organization because of its long campaign against an ally also failed to persuade the United States to refrain from working with the PYD/YPG.

Although Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter was forced to acknowledge at a Senate hearing on April 28 that the YPG had “substantial ties to the PKK,” the United States has been consistent in drawing a policy distinction between the two groups. On February 8, for example, State Department spokesman John Kirby said “We have been managing this particular issue for quite some time… And we don’t, as you know, recognize the PYD as a terrorist organization. We recognize that the Turks do, and I understand that.” U.S. ambassador to Turkey John Bass reiterated this argument on June 23 by saying “As those in Washington have stated previously, the U.S. does not recognize the PYD as a terrorist organization. We recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization, condemn its attacks but also understand Turkey’s sensitivities and comprehend its sensitivities regarding organizations that support the PKK.” However, he added, “We will continue to support all groups who are fighting against ISIS.”

As it proceeded to expand its cooperation with the PYD/YPG, Washington was no doubt mindful of the fact that, having restrained the Syrian Kurds from moving west after having captured the Tishrin Dam on the Euphrates on December 26 in deference to Turkey’s sensitivities, Turkish-backed opposition fighters had failed to push ISIS out of areas immediately beyond the border even with the support of Turkish artillery and U.S. airstrikes. On April 25, Obama announced that he would send 250 additional special forces troops to supplement the 50 who were already on the ground and provide additional military supplies. On May 18, he placed a phone call to Erdogan in which he reportedly made clear that, just as during the Kobane siege in 2014, he would override Turkish objections in the upcoming campaign in the Manbij gap.

However, after essentially ignoring Turkey’s concerns, the United States has been making an effort, as Votel explained to the Washington Post while in Ankara, “to balance” the relationship with its “fabulous partners” in Turkey with its “very good partner on the ground” in Syria. During his own visit to Ankara, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken commented on June 17, “We are working together in Manbij and this is a very important operation. There is a piece of the border between Turkey and Syria that has been under the control of Daesh…Together, we came up with an operation to try to close that border…That operation is having real success and it’s a result of coordination, cooperation between the United States and Turkey.”

In his initial reaction to the Manbij operation on June 2, Erdogan was cautious. Referring to his conversations with “Obama, military officials and also with our intelligence organizations,” he commented “We are told that YPG will serve as a logistical force and Arabs will constitute the main forces. With our own intelligence network and command echelon, we are monitoring what is being done in this process. We will see.” However, on June 11, he denounced the operation by saying “A very serious plan and project are being implemented in our south, in the north of Syria. Unfortunately, lying behind these plans are the insidious acts of those who look friendly…Some of those friendly countries say PYD and YPG are fighting against Daesh thus we support them.”

Notwithstanding Erdogan’s publicly stated discomfort, it seems that a deal has been quietly struck between Washington and Ankara on the military operation in northern Syria according to which the Syrian Kurdish forces would keep a reasonable distance away from the Turkish border. The chief of the Turkish General Staff, Hulusi Akar, for example, was reported to have said during a Council of Ministers meeting presided over by Erdogan on June 20 that “a line was being formed below the Turkish border incorporating Manbij, but excluding Jarablus, which would connect Kobane and Afrin to establish a Kurdish corridor.” Akar added that the Turkish General Staff was in touch with the United States and that “the U.S. was keeping its promises.” However, he went on to warn that the PYD/YPG could “take the lead in a future operation on Jarablus” and called for “diplomatic pressure on the U.S.”

At a broader level, the origins of the growing divergence on the role of the PYD/YPG can be traced to the fundamental difference between the two allies on Syria. Having agreed at the outset of the Syrian crisis on the goal of ousting Assad, Washington refrained from committing sufficient military resources to achieve the joint objective and gradually moved to its current position of focusing only on dealing with the jihadist threat, in particular ISIS. During that process, it spurned repeated Turkish calls for greater U.S. engagement, including the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria, and terminated the train and equip program in Turkey for vetted opposition fighters after a major debacle in their first operation.

To Turkey’s chagrin, the United States is now cooperating not only with the Syrian Kurds but also indirectly with Russia, the most important outside actor in insuring Assad’s survival. For its part, Ankara has chosen to stick to its policy of stressing the priority of regime change in Syria, despite the considerable costs it has been incurring in addition to maintaining support for numerous groups in the opposition in conjunction with Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It has also continued to criticize Western inaction in Syria while identifying it as a major factor in the emergence of radical jihadism exemplified by ISIS.

Neither Ankara nor Washington have forgotten that Turkey’s decision in March 2003 not to allow the United States to invade Iraq from the north through Turkish territory had caused very serious damage to their relationship. The widening Syrian gap has the potential to do at least as much damage. Ironically, as the political channel of communication between the two allies has become strained, the military-to-military dialogue has assumed growing importance for the first time since the Iraq disagreement, particularly after the July 2015 agreement to allow the United States to use the Incirlik Airbase for air operations in Syria.

Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Photo credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program