Photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro
Middle East / United States

Tied Up in a Tug of War

In shifting military focus towards Iran and withdrawing troops from Northern Syria, US President, Donald Trump recently instigated a tug of war between Turkey and the US. Often, preaching the need to “stop the endless wars” on Twitter, President Trump relocated troops into Iraq in early October. Many have criticized Trump’s military withdrawal for betraying the US’ Kurdish allies in their joint fight against ISIS. The lack of regional US military presence has paved an easy route for Turkish forces to invade Northern Syria—a move that is currently underway as Turkey conducts mass-scale military invasions under the label: “Operation Peace Spring.”

Turkey argues their military invasion is a key component to strengthening national security. Bordering 822 kilometers with Syria, Turkey has long favored a “buffer zone” extending 30 kilometers within Northern Syria from the Turkish border onwards.It must be noted that Turkey’s proposed buffer zone would dislocate thousands, if not millions of Syrian Kurds living in the region. This buffer zone represents the backbone of Turkey’s war on domestic terror by Kurdish rebels/militia—primarily the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and the YPG (People’s Protection Units). Though both Turkey and the US consider the PKK a terrorist organization, they disagree with each other’s categorization of the YPG. While Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the PKK and thus considers it a terrorist organization, the US views the YPG as a respected ally in the battle against ISIS in Syria.

Both the PKK and the YPG are Kurdish paramilitary fighting for the Kurdish sovereignty they were once promised. Maintaining sn Iranian ethnic identity, the Kurds have inhabited the region bordering Syria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Armenia for decades. After World War I and the death of the Ottoman Empire, Kurds pushed for the creation of Kurdistan as an independent nation, rather than a merely ethnically united region. In 1920, Western allies made provisions for a Kurdish state in the Treaty of Sevres. Three years later these provisions were neglected in the Treaty of Lausanne, which effectively determined modern Turkey’s borders, giving no independence to Kurds in the region.

The wide geographic diaspora of the Kurds has led to diverse cultural practices. Though most are Sunni Muslims, many Kurds engage in differing religious practices. Further, there is no dominant Kurdish dialect. Turkey has historically had many diplomatic disputes with Turkish-Kurds, demanding public education in Eastern regions be conducted in the native Kurdish language, as it is more commonly spoken than Turkish in certain regions of the country. Some argue that the Kurds’ lack of centralized culture undermines, to an extent, their efforts to establish an independent nation..

Turkey’s war on terror is one of President Erdogan’s few, if not last, resorts for increasing his public approval, which has significantly worsened as Turkey’s economic crisis deepens. In recent years, Kurdish counterinsurgencies have been responsible for many domestic terror attacks. One notable attack was the December 2016 bombings, in which 36 police officers and 8 civilians were killed outside of a football stadium in Istanbul. A military win for Turkey could increase Erdogan’s support— something he desperately needs in the wake of his Justice and Development Party’s making its first city-council defeats in Istanbul and Ankara in 18 years.  

Erdogan may also potentially increase his popularity by relocating the three and a half million Syrian refugees—presently in Turkey—back into their planned buffer zone within Northern Syria. A 2019 poll by Kadir Has University in Istanbul found that over 51 percent of participants supported a cross border operation into Syria, up from 34 percent in 2014. Researchers discovered that Turks living nearer to Northern Syria were less likely to approve of a cross border operation into the country than those who lived further away from the border. This highlights how those who would be most directly impacted by the proposal remain hesitant  even though the proposal has amassed overall-support in Turkey.

Though Erdogan may appear to have public approval for his stance on Syria, a score for Erdogan domestically may not necessarily translate into a winning strategy on an international level. Turkey has faced global outcry for their practices in Northern Syria, which is likely to get louder. Just recently, the US Senate voted to acknowledge the Armenian mass-killings as a genocide. If President Trump signs approval for this acknowledgement, it could burden Turkey with tremendous fines for past-war crimes.

Similarly, Trump has been vocal about his willingness to  “destroy the Turkish economy” if they do not behave in a way that respects humanitarian law. In a letter to Erdogan from October 9th, Trump wrote, “I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy—and I will…Don’t let the world down…Don’t be a fool!” In a November meeting between the two presidents in the White House, Erdogan allegedly returned Trump his letter and told Turkish  press that the White House “had no reaction” to his gesture.

With its military invasion in Northern Syria and Erdogan’s public attempts to refute Trump’s threats, Turkey appears to be strategically leveraging its power over the US for Erdogan to better pursue his domestic political agenda. Erdogan’s government has issued press statements reminding the US that Turkey has control over their nuclear weapons in Incirlik, a NATO airbase storing nuclear bombs. Turkey has been deeply criticized by its fellow NATO members for leveraging such restrictions to its military base. However, Turkey appears to increasingly display indifference towards other NATO members’ concerns. Just recently, Turkey announced a formal military coalition with Russia and Iran in Northern Syria. If this alliance holds strong, Turkey might be able to establish their desired buffer zone. Blocking Saudi Arabia’s efforts to install a pipeline passing through Syria into Europe, Russia would maintain dominance over their monopolized natural gas sales to Europe. Similarly, Iran would potentially profit from oil-sales to Turkey, for which they are currently sanctioned for doing.

Turkey’s coalition with Russia and Iran represents a power-shift extending beyond Syrian borders. As Turkey repeatedly dismisses US threats of sanctions and continues purchasing Russian arms, it publicly demonstrates a growing military distancing of the US from NATO at large. While the salience of this issue has heightened recently, the growing military distance has been a matter of concern dating back well-before Trump’s withdrawal of troops. As of March 2016, Turkey has been, and continues to be, receiving legal scrutiny regarding its negligence towards US sanctions on Iran.

Currently, the Justice Department is taking Turkey’s national bank—HalkBank— to trial for purchasing Iranian oil in collusion with US detainee Reza Zarrab. If the case reaches a guilty verdict, Turkey will likely face extreme economic sanctions that would effectively destroy the Turkish economy, as Trump has so threatened. Though publicly portraying a defiant persona, Erdogan will continue caving to Trump’s demands for an economic crash would demolish any support for Erdogan’s presidency.

In effect, Turkey and the US—or namely Erdogan and Trump—appear to be engaged in a tug of war revolving around military bureaucracy. On the one hand, both presidents seem to be pulling the strings necessary to fulfill their own domestic agendas; on the other hand, the leverage both nations have over each other—mainly Turkey’s control over the Incirlik base and the US’ ability to devastate the Turkish economy—seems to be pushing them to compromise. The need to compromise is why, despite Turkey’s increasing military independence from the U.S., the rope tying the two countries together still holds strong. However, the potential for one president to outmaneuver the other and potentially move even closer to fulfilling their domestic agenda is worth considering. The question is who will be the one to pull a tad harder?