Turkey is a threat to Syria - opinion

Turkey has invaded and occupied the territory of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria twice in the past four years.

 US SECRETARY of State Antony Blinken meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at the UN, in May.  (photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)
US SECRETARY of State Antony Blinken meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at the UN, in May.
(photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)

Turkey has invaded and occupied the territory of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) twice in the past four years and is threatening to do so again. 

Its invasions of Afrin, Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad have prolonged Syria’s war and contributed to regional instability, granted ISIS and other jihadist groups a new lease on life, and led to serious, pervasive human rights abuses against Syrian civilians. 

A possible third attack, likely targeting major cities like Manbij, Kobane and Qamishlo, would be worse. The Rojava Information Center, a local research institution, has warned that such a military operation could displace up to a million people and leave those who remained without access to critical resources and infrastructure. 

Underlining the danger and tragedy of these outcomes is the fact that they are preventable. The instability in northern and eastern Syria today is concentrated on the front lines of the zone that Turkey and its Syrian National Army (SNA) proxies invaded during Operation Peace Spring in 2019. Turkey was only able to take control of this zone in the first place because of a series of US diplomatic failures. 

To prevent a new Turkish operation, these failures – and the outdated ideas about regional conflicts that justify them – must be understood in detail. 

 Smoke rises after airstrikes on a rebel-held part of the southern city of Deraa, Syria, June 15, 2017 (illustrative). (credit: REUTERS/ALAA AL-FAQIR) Smoke rises after airstrikes on a rebel-held part of the southern city of Deraa, Syria, June 15, 2017 (illustrative). (credit: REUTERS/ALAA AL-FAQIR)

US failures

Despite American rhetoric about Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns” in the region, Turkey’s aggressive approach to northern Syria has little to do with any concrete security threat from the AANES or the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). 

Instead, Turkish attacks on the region are wars of choice – rooted in an authoritarian, militarist hostility to all forms of Kurdish political and cultural expression that has been the official policy of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government since the breakdown of peace talks between the state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2015. Achieving stability in northern and eastern Syria will be prohibitively difficult, if not impossible, without a political solution to the wider Turkish-Kurdish conflict.

In the months immediately prior to Operation Peace Spring, conditions for new efforts to seek a negotiated solution were better than they had ever been. The United States was engaging directly in dialogue with Turkey and with the SDF. Imprisoned PKK founder and leader Abdullah Ocalan had been granted meetings with his lawyers, allowing him to communicate with the outside world – an opportunity he used to call for peace in Syria.

Cemil Bayik, co-chair of the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK) – an umbrella organization that the PKK is a part of – even published an op-ed article in The Washington Post titled, simply, “Now is the moment for peace between Kurds and the Turkish state. Let’s not waste it.” 

Yet instead of taking advantage of these circumstances, US policymakers chose to isolate the situation in northern and eastern Syria from its political and historical context. American diplomats expended limited time, effort, and diplomatic capital not on a sustainable political solution to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, but on an unenforceable “safe zone” deal that forced the AANES and SDF to make unnecessary and impractical concessions and imposed no consequences on parties for violations. 

When former US president Donald Trump abruptly withdrew US troops from northern Syria in October 2019, Turkey immediately abandoned its commitments under the agreement. It is highly likely that Erdogan’s government never intended to uphold its end of the deal in the first place. 

The United States should have been aware that Turkish leaders did not approach negotiations with the SDF from an honest standpoint. It should also have taken Erdogan seriously when he spoke about his idea of a “safe zone,” a fully occupied strip of Syrian territory along the Turkish border, governed by the same opposition-affiliated militias that had terrorized Kurdish civilians in Afrin as part of the same strategy of forced demographic change.

Turkey never indicated publicly that it intended to coexist peacefully with a Kurdish-led political entity on its borders; US planning should not have assumed otherwise. 

The task before the Biden administration today is a difficult one: preventing a crisis caused by failed Trump policies, and then engaging in the kind of diplomacy that the Trump administration was unable or unwilling to initiate. Yet the costs of failure for regional stability and security are simply too high.

First, they must unequivocally oppose any further Turkish intervention in Syria. The fact that the State Department has publicly called on Turkey to respect the 2019 ceasefire is a necessary first step.

It must be made clear to Turkey that if they choose to go to war against the AANES and SDF and occupy more Syrian territory, they will face consequences greater than those incurred last time. Imposing sanctions under Executive Order 13894 on individuals and entities involved in military operations in Syria and refusing to move forward with the F-16 sale would be two strong steps. 

If an attack can be prevented, the US must then commit to addressing the Kurdish question in its full regional context. Supporting peace talks between Turkey and the PKK and a political solution to the Kurdish question is simply not as controversial a policy as its opponents try to make it. 

As a senator in the 1990s, US President Joe Biden co-sponsored legislation that would have restricted US security assistance to Turkey until Turkey “recognize[d] the civil, cultural, and human rights of its Kurdish citizens, ceases its military operations against Kurdish civilians, and takes demonstrable steps toward a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue.”

The 2019 report of the bipartisan Syria Study Group, issued just weeks before Turkey attacked Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad, said that “the United States should encourage the resumption of Turkey-PKK peace talks, which hold the best possibility of leading to a détente between Turkey and the SDF.”

Whether this new crisis in US-Turkey relations materializes or not, there is a palpable feeling in Washington that the next setback with Ankara is never too far around the corner. Turkey’s tendency to derail specific US efforts and destabilize the region, in general, can be closely connected to what it deems its existential conflict: the Kurdish question.

It is time for the US to commit to a solution to this conflict once and for all – if not because it is the right thing to do, then because it would eradicate a significant pain point in the Middle East and free up resources that would otherwise be used managing preventable crises.

The writer is executive director of the newly-formed Kurdish Peace Institute.