President Donald Trump is clearing U.S. troops out of the way of an imminent Turkish offensive into northeastern Syria. The withdrawal highlights long-building frictions between the United States and Turkey.
Through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, each state has committed to go to war to defend the other. They used to agree who the enemy they’d be defending against was: the Soviet Union. Today, the pair are drifting apart, and one side’s enemy is the other’s friend. The affair highlights the challenges facing an aging alliance that was built for a different strategic context, and the inadequacy of old foreign policy structures for a new world.
NATO Was Fine 70 Years Ago, But It’s Not Today
Let’s be clear. It wasn’t a mistake when we brought Turkey under our protection through NATO in 1952. At the time, Turkey was one of two Western-aligned European states that had a land border with the Soviet Union. Communist forces had waged a civil war in Turkey’s neighbor Greece, and the Soviets had tried to create two small puppet states in Iran along that country’s border with Turkey.
Turkey was and is a geographically large, populous, industrializing state. It’s also in a very strategic location: at the boundary of Europe and Asia, astride the straits that link the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, with frontier access to the Caucasus, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the eastern Mediterranean. In the East-West conflict of the Cold War, Turkey offered an edge to whichever side held it. We used an alliance commitment to make sure that side was us.
The logic of the U.S. commitment to Turkey has shifted since the Soviet Union collapsed. Turkey still sits at a strategic crossroads, but one that’s less impactful for U.S. security. The principal threat in the region that can affect the safety of people here at home is not Soviet empire-building in the Eurasian heartland, but terrorism.
Military means, including military alliances, have had a mixed record in addressing the terror threat. Although no state believes terrorism is good, states differ wildly on who is a terrorist, which terrorists ought to get priority, and how they should be fought. These disagreements are rooted in different interests. The more different two states’ interests are, the more difficult building a meaningful alliance will be. That’s a taproot of this week’s U.S.-Turkish disagreement.
Turkey Thinks the U.S. Partners Are Terrorists
The Turkish offensive is aimed at clearing heavily Kurdish militia forces away from Turkey’s border. In Ankara’s eyes, these militias are partners of the PKK, the Kurdish separatist group whose insurgency has killed thousands. Some outsiders have seen evidence of PKK ties among the militias, too.
In Turkey’s telling, a Kurdish state in Syria might drive Kurds in Turkey to demand the same for themselves. The Kurds might use that state as a haven, just like the PKK has done in northern Iraq. For Turkey, the Kurds are the muscle behind the government structures in northeastern Syria. For Turkey, the PKK is an enemy on par with al-Qaeda, one that must be kept far from the homeland. The Turks are outraged that their most important ally has cooperated with them.
For Washington, Syria’s Kurdish militias are our main partner against the Islamic State. The United States agrees with Turkey that the PKK is a terrorist group (we’ve had them on our Foreign Terrorist Organization list longer than al-Qaeda or the Real IRA), but sees the militias in Syria as distinct from the PKK. We tend to be optimistic about Kurdish efforts to integrate non-Kurds into militias and governments east of the Euphrates. Many Americans remember years of cooperation with the Kurds against Saddam Hussein and against the Islamic State group. (A few Westerners have even joined the militias.)
When Turks picture armed Syrian Kurds, they might remember hearing the news of a relative’s death in a battle with the PKK; when we picture armed Syrian Kurds, we see the telegenic female fighters of the YPJ. The two sides have very different views of the situation in northeastern Syria, and their views reflect different priorities.
So while Turkey wants to push Syrian Kurdish forces away, the United States has long held that any fight between the two would be a distraction from preventing the return of the Islamic State. Hence the longstanding deployment of U.S. forces on what are effectively peacekeeping missions to keep our Kurdish friends and our Turkish allies from killing each other.
The Syria Crisis Makes Alliance Problems Acute
Worse for the alliance, this problem has little to do with the quasi-authoritarian rule of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey’s struggle with the Kurds is decades old, and Turkish politics include nationalist elements that don’t like Erdogan’s Islamism but really don’t like separatism or the notion of a hyphenated identity for Kurds. The conflict can be worsened by Erdogan’s need to keep domestic support, but no Turkish state would favor a Kurdish entity in Syria with links to the PKK.
The northeastern Syria crisis made acute what has been a chronic erosion of U.S.-Turkish relations. The list of grievances on each side is long, although Turkey’s acquisition of advanced Russian air defense systems and the subsequent U.S. expulsion of Turkey from the F-35 fighter program has raised the most urgent questions about Turkey’s status as a NATO partner.
Trump himself has gone back and forth, tweeting on October 7 that “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey,” and then on October 8 that they are “a big trading partner” and “an important member in good standing of NATO.” Occasional Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham has warned of “sanctions from hell” if they carry on with the invasion, possibly including a bipartisan “call for their suspension from NATO.”
NATO: Old Wineskin for New Times
The latter call highlights another layer of our Turkey problem. You can’t kick states out of NATO. The only mechanisms NATO has for deciding such weighty issues require unanimity, meaning Turkey would have to agree to its own expulsion. The United States can take some measures on its own, such as cutting back cooperation with Turkey or even declaring that it will fulfill its obligations to defend Turkey through non-military means. Such steps have merits, and could encourage some of NATO’s other dubious members to put more effort into defending themselves.
Pressure against Turkey over northeastern Syria may create unusual partnerships in Washington. Hawkish idealists on the left and especially the right have been furious with Erdogan for years, while many traditional realists and restrainers think America is overcommitted in Europe and the Middle East anyway and see little to lose in backing away from Turkey. (These two factions are usually bitter foes, and will prescribe different remedies.) Conversely, some non-idealist hawks have favored staying with Turkey, fearing Turkish alignment with Russia and Iran.
Much of the foreign policy establishment is on the sidelines of this debate. Members of the establishment tend to view alliances as ends in themselves, and hence fear threatening any ally with real consequences. At the same time, they have a sentimental attachment to the Kurds, a faith in “precise,” graduated uses of force (like sending a few special operators to the Turkish-Kurdish frontier), and an allergy to pulling troops out of anywhere for any reason.
Any outcome other than the infinite extension of the pre-withdrawal status quo is thus incompatible with their worldview, even though that status quo has been teetering for months. It is poetic that establishment denunciations of a Syria drawdown peaked on October 7—18 years to the day since our mission in Afghanistan began.
If the establishment gets its way, the status quo will continue and the contradictions in U.S. policy towards Turkey and Syria will grow sharper. If those contradictions yield undeniable policy failure, or if Trump’s Syria withdrawal gains momentum, we may witness the opening act of a post-establishment U.S. foreign policy: more flexible, more contentious, and up for grabs.