Will Northeastern Syria Become A Flashpoint Between Turkey and the United States?

by | Feb 22, 2021

Will Northeastern Syria Become A Flashpoint Between Turkey and the United States?

by | Feb 22, 2021

Last November, the United States saw a rather dramatic presidential election that put a lot at stake and in many ways was supposed to determine the direction of Washington’s foreign policy.

The new administration under Joe Biden’s leadership has repeatedly signaled its intention to introduce a number of adjustments to the current situation in the Middle East, recast the shape of relations with regional powers such as Iran and Turkey, and reinvigorate cooperation with the Kurdish-dominated Autonomous Administration of the North and East Syria (AANES), the main U.S. ally in Syria.

Needless to say, the White House’s ambitious endeavors did not receive a universal welcome in the region. The main obstacle is the Turkish authorities who, unlike Washington, show zero desire for changes in their policy towards the Syrian Kurds. The AANES military wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), incorporates the Kurdish People Protection Units (YPG), an entity that Ankara considers to be affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist organization in Turkey. In this regard, the rising power of the SDF, albeit under the American protectorate, runs counter to the interests of Turkey and poses a serious threat to its national security as routinely stated by Turkish officials.

Ankara’s controversial foreign policy has recently secured it fame of as aggressor state in the MENA region. As a result, Turkey now has rather strained relations with both European and Middle Eastern states. In turn, purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems has caused a rift between the Turkish leadership and American authorities. Moreover, a number of U.S. congressmen expressed concern over Turkey’s aggression in northern Syria and called on Joe Biden to put pressure on the Turkish officials. This sentiment was shared by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken who said that Turkey “is not acting like an ally” and called purchase of the Russian-made anti-aircraft missile systems “unacceptable.”

In a stark contrast to this generally negative attitude, a recent statement by the U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price looked somewhat surprising. During a briefing Price called Turkey an important NATO partner, and stressed that the two states share common interests, including the matters related to the settlement of the Syrian conflict. He also added that all present disagreements with Ankara should be resolved within the framework of political dialogue.

Perhaps seeing a narrow window of opportunity, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin urged President Biden to cease support for the AANES and the Kurdish armed units, while Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar confirmed Turkey’s readiness to continue its “counter-terrorist” operations in northern Syria.

A revealing trend in the coverage of the Syrian file in the Turkish media has linked the rise in activities of the Kurdish units with Joe Biden’s coming to power. The state-run Daily Sabah newspaper that is tasked with projecting Turkey’s agenda in the West has openly accused the Kurds of abusing Washington’s protection in order to strengthen their positions.

To add fuel to the fire, the areas of northern Syria controlled by the Turkey-affiliated factions of the Syrian opposition are witnessing an increase in terror attacks that are generally blamed on Kurdish sleeper cells. In the latest example, a series of explosions hit the cities of Azaz, Afrin, and Al-Bab, resulting in the death of over 20 civilians. After the incident the U.S. State Department issued an unprecedented statement stressing that “those responsible for perpetrating the violence should be brought to justice,” which was a chilling surprise for the Kurds.

With this in mind, the question is: does Recep Erdogan, despite his aggressive rhetoric against the Kurds, actually have the audacity to confront and potentially spoil relations with an obviously stronger NATO ally who supports the SDF and trusts them to protect oil fields in eastern Syria? A web of diplomatic challenges is closing in on the Turkish leader, pushing him into making a choice between territorial claims and the fight against the Kurdish administration on Turkey’s border on the one hand, and maintaining relations with the key ally on the other.

It is worth noting that prior to entering the Oval Office Joe Biden was extremely critical regarding Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria and called it a “betrayal” of the U.S. regional ally, the SDF. If Biden sticks to this firm stance on the Kurds, Turkey is unlikely to get any concessions from Washington.

It is difficult to speak with certainty about the outcome of the escalating confrontation between the U.S. and Turkey. However, by pursuing such a belligerent policy in Syria and seeking to eliminate the “threat” from the SDF/YPG/PKK, Turkey risks becoming not only a regional aggressor, but also a rogue state. The months—or perhaps even days—to come will show whether Erdogan is able to restrain his political ambitions in the interests of maintaining a strategically important partnership with the United States, or Turkey will follow the path of a “final solution” of the Kurdish question, ignoring all international laws and its allies.

Ahmad Al Khaled is a Syrian freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post and Global Security Review.

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