Strikes on Syria: Game Changer for U.S.-Turkey Relations?

By W. Robert Pearson | Scholar - The Middle East Institute | Apr 7, 2017
Strikes on Syria: Game Changer for U.S.-Turkey Relations?

U.S. cruise missile strikes on al-Shayrat airfield northeast of Damascus early April 7 have changed the dynamics of the Syrian war. The strikes were intended as a clear and contained message to the Assad regime that the barbarism of the Syrian government has its limits. It was not a declaration of war by the United States, but it served to delineate last week’s message from the Americans that regime change in Damascus was “not practical”, a message that may have given Bashar al-Assad the impression that he now had a free hand in the war.

From Assad’s perspective, he may have concluded that the Russians were clear winners in shaping the Syrian war’s final peace negotiations, the Turks were co-opted by the Russians in the peace negotiations and in their wider relations, and Washington was now going to concentrate on defeating ISIS in conjunction with a broader understanding with Russia. Those assumptions are now out the window as the world praises President Donald Trump’s decisive action, and hope renews in the rebel camps.

Unintended or not, the strikes reorder the narrative between Ankara and Washington. The U.S. action could be interpreted as a message that Assad’s time is limited. New language may emerge from Washington about Assad’s future in a peace process, however complicated. Turkey will be delighted, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already praised the American move and offered to help. The strikes give reality to the discussion of safe zones for refugees, but the United States is highly unlikely to provide the troops for ground security. The strikes also are an ice-cold shower on Turkey-Russia relations, already wavering under the Russian embrace of Syrian Kurdish fighters and Moscow’s military moves to block Turkish expansion in Syria beyond the enclave carved out already by Turkish-backed forces.

Erdogan is likely to claim the strikes are a vindication of his longstanding demand for regime change, a demand he rapidly abandoned when Turkey began courting Russia in the summer of 2016 and during the Astana peace talks. An unintended consequence may be that the American move may bolster his chances of winning the April 16 referendum with a new surge of Turkish confidence that events in Syria are turning Ankara’s way. To strengthen his personal stature before the referendum, Erdogan will probably still find a way to criticize the United States, and now also Russia, while he continues to present Turkey as a victim demanding help and understanding for its problems.

There will be, however, some difficult points ahead for U.S.-Turkey relations, even if the missile strikes open space for improved cooperation. If Turkey is serious about helping, it could step forward now to provide the ground troops for safe zones to protect refugees, thereby re-establishing a solid link with the American military, which has been skeptical for some time about Turkish intentions and capabilities. Those zones must not provide a basis for military action against the Syrian Kurdish militia, the Y.P.G., or be a shelter for al-Qaeda linked groups embedded in the Turkish-backed rebel forces. Ankara already understands that Washington intends to still rely on its local forces of Kurds, Arabs, and others to complete the capture of Mosul and Raqqa, and that understanding should not be broken.

Ankara did not treat Secretary of State Rex Tillerson courteously in his recent visit, seemingly ignoring the fact that he was the third and highest ranking U.S. visitor to Turkey in the last two months. Publicly lecturing the most consistent friend Turkey has had in the last 75 years is hardly productive, yet Turkey chooses to indulge in these emotional outbursts for short-term domestic gains. There is a great deal of good to be done when Turkey and the United States see eye-to-eye. These strikes provide yet another opportunity for these two countries to realize that potential.