The current Syrian ceasefire effort of Russia and Turkey is a Russian attempt to impose a final political defeat on the rebels and a Turkish attempt to focus on eliminating the Kurds in Syria militarily and politically. Turkey is also intensely lobbying the new U.S. administration for help. The ceasefire deal rests on the barbarism of Russia and the Assad regime and the feckless response of the West. This is the peace Rome imposed on the prostrate Carthage. The unanimous UNSC vote endorsing the Russian/Turkish proposal enshrines one side’s brutality and the other’s moral vacuum. But Turkey needs to seriously reengage with the United States on a genuine sharing of interests if it wants long-term security in the region. America needs to do more to accord Turkey the influence it deserves in the region.
While the Russians are closer than ever to success for their own goal, the Turks may face challenges with their campaign to crush the Syrian Kurds and establish hegemony east of the Euphrates. The Russians will largely determine what Turkey is free to do in Syria. Moscow has yet to make clear its course regarding the Kurds who are fighting ISIS. Turkey will have operational problems sustaining its major effort in Syria alone. Turkey’s demand for U.S. air support to take the city of al-Bab both reflects Ankara’s vulnerabilities and its strategy to persuade the Washington to abandon the Kurds.
That might be hard. The current two major objectives of the United States are to recapture Mosul and Raqqa, and the Kurdish forces are key to both campaigns. If the ceasefire leads ultimately to a settlement, it will be mainly on Russian and Assad regime terms. If the ceasefire collapses, as it might, Russia and Assad will go back to war. Hoping to nurse the ceasefire into peace negotiations, Ankara thinks that yielding on its original aim of removing Assad might lead to Russian support for Turkey’s anti-Kurdish goal.
Turkey is upping the ante in its effort to enlist the United States in its plans. It is demanding that the incoming administration provide U.S. air support exclusively to the Turks in Syria while claiming that President Obama is colluding with ISIS. If the Turks had helped the United States against ISIS several years ago, the U.S. would not have had to turn to local Kurdish fighters to deal with the ballooning menace. Now, for the first time, Turkey’s foreign minister says there is a crisis over the U.S. presence at Incirlik air base in order to force the new Administration to yield to Turkish demands. The approach should not be unexpected; public unilateral demands for concessions are not uncommon for current Turkish diplomacy. The question is whether the Turks would so sharply break with the Trump presidency if their demands are not met.
Such an abrupt change to please Turkey, in addition to effectively abandoning the Kurds in the middle of the assault on Mosul, could substantially delay and very possibly undermine the momentum of the U.S. war against ISIS. If Turkey succeeds, Russia and Turkey even may try to enlist the United States into joining its “anti-terrorism” coalition, thereby giving Washington an opportunity to rationalize a more narrow focus on ISIS militarily and also make clear its intention not to engage seriously in any peace settlement process. The new U.S. national security advisor, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, is already on record favoring a more supportive U.S. stance with regard to Turkey. Mr. Trump has made clear his intentions to have better relations with Russia. The problem, however, for the new Administration will be that while the Russians have Assad’s army and the Turks have their own army to fight ISIS, the Americans only have the Syrian Democratic Forces - the Kurdish dominated coalition.
Rumors are circulating that President-elect Trump may wish to insert a force of 20,000 to 30,000 troops to precipitate the collapse of ISIS. There was a time when such a move would have been a viable option. That was between January 2014 when major ISIS assaults began and the Russian intervention in September 2015. Now it would come in the aftermath of a disastrous rebel defeat in Aleppo, which eliminated any hope that a defeat of ISIS would allow the West to turn to a change of regime in Damascus. It would come in the face of peace terms dictated by Russia. Would the U.S. really be prepared to appear to be an active partner of Russia in the triumph of the Assad regime? Alternatively, would the U.S. intervene in Syria to directly confront Russia and try to reverse the facts in place, including the incipient ceasefire and peace process underway?
A better way forward for Turkey and the U.S. would be a clear understanding with Ankara from the beginning - which means now - to preserve U.S. interests and develop new avenues of cooperation. The Americans need to eliminate the ISIS caliphate as quickly as possible, preserve and bolster Iraq, and play a positive role in a Syrian peace settlement. These ends should not be sacrificed on the altar of Ankara’s more narrow ambitions in Syria. The benefits of better U.S. Turkish cooperation could be substantial.
The Turkish/Iraqi meetings of January 7, while perhaps intended by Turkey to further corner the U.S. on Turkey’s policy on the Kurds, actually could strengthen the chances of Turkish/Iraqi/US cooperation in Syria and against ISIS. A Turkish/Iraqi accommodation on Turkish troop presence in Iraq, on post-Mosul capture governance, and on dealing with the PKK should help the fight against ISIS. The U.S. is committing to weakening the PKK threat against Turkey, and it needs Turkey/Iraqi cooperation to help stabilize the region. Turkey has misrepresented its views before with the U.S. about its real intentions in its diplomacy, making the U.S. look twice now at Turkish moves. If Turkey were willing to genuinely enter a partnership with Washington, both countries could look past former mistakes to concentrate on concrete progress for both. Both President Trump and President Erdogan would emerge as winners.
The U.S. should support the Turks’ legitimate interest in the future governance of Mosul and in blunting any cross-border Kurdish support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. Syria will be unsettled for quite some time, and security on Turkey’s southern borders by Turkey is preferable by far to that of Damascus, Moscow or Tehran. Cooperation with the U.S also would give the Turks a counterweight to Russia; Moscow has received much and given little with Turkey in their current geopolitical bromance. Turkey is properly wary about Iran in any Syrian peace negotiations and about Tehran’s influence in Baghdad. The U.S. could help.
The new beginning with a new U.S. president offers a better chance to try to reconcile differences and hammer out supporting policies. The U.S. can support a strong Turkish presence in a very unstable region without betraying its determination to destroy ISIS as quickly as possible and recover a role that is essential for stability in the wider Middle East. A lot is riding on how the Trump presidency responds to the Turkish full court press.