Turkey has launched a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria. Warplanes have bombed militia positions in towns near the border, killing two civilians. To discuss this ongoing conflict, we're joined by Matshidiso Motsoeneng from the Afro-Middle East Centre.
When Donald Trump was elected the forty-fifth president of the USA in November 2016, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was among the first world leaders to congratulate him. His congratulatory phone call echoed Erdogan’s ambition to strengthen US-Turkish relations, which had gone cold over the US Syria policy under Barack Obama. On 17 May 2017, Trump hosted the Turkish president in the first official meeting between the two leaders. Before the meeting, both leaders were still in honeymoon mode, despite diplomatic tensions, such as the US decision to support Kurdish militias in Syria and the unresolved matter of the Turkish request for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. The honeymoon quickly ended as waves of diplomatic spats drastically changed the relationship.
The USA introduced sanctions on Turkey in 2018 over the detention of a US pastor, Andrew Brunson, indicating rapidly escalating tensions between two countries that had had a complicated history of diplomatic relations. While tensions calmed somewhat after Brunson’s release, Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system significantly ruptured the relationship between the two North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies, with the crisis likely to deteriorate over other tensions pertaining to Syria. In August, Turkey’s refusal to cancel the S-400 deal saw the USA freezing the Turks out of its F-35 joint strike fighter programme. Despite this, a US delegation was sent to Ankara early August to help set up a ‘safe zone’ in north-eastern Syria. Both Turkish and US commitment to create the safe zone appears to have staved off a Turkish military campaign against Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters, who are aligned to and supported by the USA. Despite making some headway in terms of Syria, Turkey’s improving relations with Russia, exemplified by the S-400 deal, and the Turkish request to extradite Gulen from the USA present ongoing sticking points in this long-standing and complicated diplomatic relationship.
History of USA-Turkey relations
The USA and Turkey have enjoyed several decades of diplomatic relations on the political, economic and military fronts. Soon after the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkey established relations with the USA by signing the Economic and Technical Cooperation agreement in 1947. In 1952, Turkey was admitted as a member of NATO, forging a closer relationship with the USA on military and political-diplomatic fronts. Bilateral relations remained relatively smooth until April 1975, when the US Congress pushed to recognise the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide. Turkey protested, but failed to convince US lawmakers to rescind the decision.
When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into government in Turkey in 2002, US-Turkish relations were on shakier ground than ever before. During the first years of the AKP government, diplomatic relations moved from friendly, with the US president, George W Bush, hailing the AKP as a ‘powerful voice in the Muslim world’, to moderately hostile following the USA-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Souring relations led Turkey to refuse a US request to allow US forces to use Turkish territory to open a front against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Despite the NATO alliance, the two countries saw relations deteriorate, eventually taking a turn for the worse at the start of the MENA uprisings in 2011, quickly followed by the Syrian civil war. USA-Turkey hostilities escalated after July 2016, when Ankara blamed a failed coup attempt on Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the USA.
Gulen and the Gulenist split with AKP
Fethullah Gulen is a Turkish Muslim cleric and businessperson who enjoys a large support base in Turkey and previously shared a close relationship with the AKP. Gulen’s following is estimated to be between three and six million people worldwide, with charities, schools and businesses in many countries, including the USA,. Now a staunch critic of Erdogan and the AKP, Gulen had close relations with Erdogan and later with the AKP after its founding in 2001. Both men opposed the secular Kemalist forces in Turkey, and the Gulenists (or Hizmet, as they call themselves) quickly supported the AKP’s rise to power. Gulen has significant influence, that has been nurtured over decades, in the Turkish police force and judiciary, and his supporters are believed to have been behind the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations and trials. These looked into alleged plots to overthrow the AKP government and Erdogan in 2003, and resulted in mass arrests of police officers and military officers – most of whom were eventually freed in 2014. The cases were part of Gulen’s power struggle with Erdogan. In 2016, a court found that Gulenists within the judiciary had fabricated evidence, and dismissed all charges against the suspects.
The relationship between Erdogan and Gulen began to fray after the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010. The ship, owned by the Turkish Humanitarian Aid Foundation (IHH), was part of the Freedom Flotilla that was headed to the besieged Gaza Strip in Palestine. The IHH vessel was forcefully boarded by Israeli forces, leading to the death of nine Turkish activists, including one with dual USA-Turkey citizenship. Gulen criticised Erdogan’s harsh response to Israel following the incident, signalling a growing rift between the two. Erdogan and Gulen again clashed over negotiations, on Erdogan’s instructions, between a senior Turkish intelligence official and jailed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Gulen and his supporters argued that Erdogan should not have negotiated with PKK ‘terrorists’. Gulen also disapproved of Erdogan’s chief negotiator in the matter, Hakan Fidan, who was close to Erdogan and who Gulen accused of secretly profiling his supporters in government institutions. The Gulen-Erdogan conflict reached its apex in 2013, when corruption allegations were levelled against Erdogan’s cabinet ministers and his son Bilal. Erdogan blamed the allegations on Gulen supporters in the police force and judiciary and accused Gulen of trying to form a parallel state in Turkey. He began a purge in government institutions of officials suspected to be Gulen loyalists and closed schools and charities linked to Hizmet. The impasse continued as several National Intelligence Organisation investigations were conducted against Gulen and his supporters.
Soon thereafter, Gulen’s supporters faced major crackdowns by the AKP-led government, and the relationship broke down irretrievably. This culminated in the attempted coup in 2016, with the AKP blaming the Gulenists for orchestrating. The failed July 2016 coup attempt was carried out by elements within the Turkish military that mobilised air and ground forces to seize political power. The attempted coup exacerbated an already polarised political climate in Turkey and led to the mass dismissal of members in the judiciary, public officials and journalists, all accused of having links to the Gulen movement. Gulen denied allegations that he played a part in the coup attempt, after Turkey called on the USA to extradite him to Turkey to face charges.
Since then, Gulen has remained an obstacle in USA- Turkey relations. Turkey has officially filed papers and applied diplomatic pressure for Gulen’s extradition over the attempted coup, but the USA has refused to comply, worsening diplomatic ties. Under Obama, the USA referred the extradition issue to the Treaty on Extradition and Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters of 1980, which both countries signed. The treaty required Turkey to submit compelling supporting evidence for Gulen to be extradited and tried in Turkey for the alleged crimes. In August 2016, Erdogan said Turkey had sent about seven boxes of evidence to show Gulen was implicated in activities to undermine the state. Despite Turkey’s efforts, the USA has not acceded to their demands, with US officials insisting there was insufficient evidence supporting Turkish claims. After a serious diplomatic row over the release of a US pastor in 2018, Trump told Erdogan he would look into the issue of Gulen’s extradition, but has since remained mum in spite of ongoing Turkish requests.
US pastor Andrew Brunson
Erdogan’s diplomatic efforts to convince the USA to extradite Gulen continued under the Trump administration. In the 2018 case of US pastor Andrew Brunson, Turkey sought to exchange Brunson for Gulen, despite Trump’s calls to release the detained pastor. Brunson had been imprisoned by Turkey on terrorism charges relating to the July 2016 attempted coup. Turkey accused Brunson of having links with both the PKK and the Gulen movement, but he denied all accusations and called for the USA to intervene on his behalf. In late 2018, Trump called on Ankara to release Brunson, and when Turkey refused, the USA applied economic sanctions on Turkey, sending its economy into chaos. Soon thereafter, in October 2018, a Turkish court ordered the Brunson’s release in what was perceived to be Ankara’s attempt to rescue its economy. Despite Turkey releasing Brunson, the USA refused to engage Ankara on the issue of Gulen’s extradition, even after numerous appeals by Erdogan. Diplomatic relations between the two countries had already suffered immensely amidst contradictory positions regarding YPG fighters in Syria.
Syrian civil war and Kurdish fighters
After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Obama’s policy sat uncomfortably with the Turks and this strained ties in 2012, when the USA turned down an appeal for military intervention in Syria after Syria’s violation of Obama’s self-proclaimed ‘red-line’. Turbulent diplomatic relations between Ankara and Washington took a further dive when Obama rejected Erdogan’s proposal for humanitarian intervention and the introduction of a no-fly zone in northern Syria to protect fleeing refugees. The rejection of efforts to alleviate the Syrian crisis became a cocktail of tensions when Obama announced that the Kurdish YPG in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were America’s best option to defeat the Islamic State group (IS). US support for Kurdish fighters in the Syrian conflict, which continues to this day, has seen the two NATO allies on opposite sides of the fence. Turkey sees the YPG as an affiliate of the PKK, which has waged an insurgency against Turkey since 1984 and has been declared a terrorist organisation by both the USA and Turkey. Thus, US support to the YPG is seen as an affront by Turkey, which has launched several attacks against YPG fighters in Syria and PKK in neighbouring Iraq.
Since the start of the Syrian war, Turkey launched two cross-border campaigns into Syria. Both focused on Turkey’s fight against the YPG from areas inside Syria bordering Turkey. Starting with Operation Euphrates Shield along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in August 2016, Ankara launched a military campaign aimed at clearing out IS and YPG fighters from Syrian areas bordering Turkey. The campaign took the border town of Jarablus on the Euphrates river and an area stretching 100 kilometres from the border, moving south to Al-Bab village. Turkey’s operations angered the USA, which had already begun supporting Kurdish fighters against IS. In January 2018, Turkey announced it would undertake a military campaign, Operation Olive Branch, in Syria’s Afrin province against the YPG, after receiving permission to use Syrian airspace from Russia. Although the operation again angered the USA, they did not intervene, despite calls from YPG fighters who felt that their allies were abandoning them under Turkish bombardment. Following this escalation, talks between the USA and Turkey quickly followed and the two sides agreed on a roadmap, including the creation of a buffer zone between YPG fighters in Manbij, northern Syria, and Turkish troops.
Despite agreements for military patrols in Afrin and Manbij, Turkey still presses for US implementation of a roadmap, already agreed to in June 2018, to disarm the YPG once the fight against IS has been completed. Recognising US hesitancy, Turkey’s strategy appears to be to pressure the USA to coordinate ‘safe-zones’ in northern Syria, which would become Turkish areas of control to maintain security. This strategy was already visible in Afrin, where Turkey transferred its allied fighters to operate as a security force, and where Turkey financially invested in rebuilding houses, schools, and hospitals. This strategy seems to be Turkey’s new export to northeastern Syria via a recent cooperation agreement with the USA to establish a safe-zone in Syrian areas bordering Turkey along the eastern Euphrates.
Recent talks between US and Turkish officials appear to have yielded some mutual gains for Ankara and Washington, although the lack of agreement on details quickly casts a shadow over the possibility of a way forward. Following the August talks, the USA has averted a Turkish attack against the YPG east of the Euphrates in northern Syria. The announcement of the agreement implies that Washington will acquiesce to some of Ankara’s demands.
Despite disagreement on intricate details, both the USA and Turkey have taken steps to set up joint coordination centres in Urfa and Ankara. This coordination will see the establishment of a peace corridor stretching from the Turkish border with Syria into areas of northeastern Syria, although there is disagreement about the size of the corridor. Turkish drones have been spotted in Syrian areas along the east Euphrates since the arrival of a US delegation in southern Turkey on 13 August. Although no timeline has been set for the coordination, a recent statement by the head of the YPG-led SDF, Mazloum Kobani, welcoming the deal for a buffer zone in northeastern Syria shows that Turkey might make gains in this process. The YPG’s acceptance of the safe zone deal between Turkey and the USA is largely due to the YPG’s concern that it might lose areas under its control if a military clash with Turkey were to erupt.
Playing the ball to Turkey is a US strategy to avoid losing allied forces on the ground ahead of their troop withdrawal from northern Syria that was announced by Trump earlier this year. There is a general fear that a Turkish military campaign against the YPG might allow an IS resurgence, eradicating US gains in eliminating the group from large parts of Syria. Although a safe zone is intended to be a corridor of safety in conditions of war, the USA-Turkey safe zone in northeastern Syria will have adverse effects, as seen in Afrin, where the operation saw a major displacement of civilians and numerous causalities. The northeastern Syria operation too is likely to lead to the displacement of people already suffering under dire humanitarian conditions caused by the eight-year-long Syrian conflict.
S-400 deal with Moscow
A more recent, and, arguably, more serious, dispute between Ankara and Washington is over the former’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system in 2018. The USA opposes the purchase, stating that the S-400 clashes with the Lockheed Martin F-35 programme used by NATO allies. Further, the USA fears that F-35 technology could be accessed by Moscow through the S-400, a claim Erdogan denies. In July, Turkey received its first shipment of S-400 parts from Russia, with the rest of the shipment expected to continue until 2020. After months of Washington threatening to apply sanctions on Ankara should the S-400 deal go through, the USA responded by kicking Turkey off the F-35 programme, despite Turkey manufacturing certain parts used in its production. Turkey’s removal from the programme will have severe economic consequences for the country, as Turkish F-35 personnel have been forced to leave the USA and return home. Further, the projected losses for Turkey amounts to $9 billion that it would have gained for supplying materials.
Turkey has dismissed the US threat of sanctions, despite previous sanctions over the Brunson row in 2018. The S-400 deal continues to fuel tensions between the USA and Turkey, and Trump has not ruled out the possibility of applying further sanctions. The 2017 Sanctions Act mandates the USA to apply upto twelve different types of sanctions to any state involved in a large arms deal with Russia. If applied, the sanctions would have a detriment on the already-troubled Turkish economy. The Turkish Lira plummeted in the last two years, losing 40 per cent of its value, after the 2018 sanctions. Further US sanctions could cripple the Turkish economy, threatening Erdogan and the AKP’s hold on power, especially after they suffered massive electoral losses in the 2019 local elections. It seems Erdogan is gambling on Trump’s hesitance to apply new rounds of sanctions on Turkey, despite the looming possibility.
The USA and Turkey continue to be neither friends nor foes after years of protracted diplomatic rifts and alliances. The two states remain NATO members, despite Turkey’s recent ousting from the F-35 programme used by all NATO members. Further, Turkish requests for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen have cast a shadow over the already complicated diplomatic relations between the countries. Recent cooperation for the creation of a safe-zone in northeastern Syria by both countries has managed a temporary peace between the Turkish military campaign and US-Kurdish allies in Syria. The lack of agreement over specific details regarding the safe zone, however, threatens this cooperation, and could see an escalation of already-heightened tensions. Despite this cooperation in northern Syria, Ankara and Washington disagree over the Russian S-400 missile defence system. Trump warned he could slap sanctions on Turkey if it went ahead with the S-400 deal with Moscow. Turkey called Trump’s bluff and received the first equipment shipment from Russia in July and the second shipment in August. If Trump forges ahead with the sanctions, the already strained Turkish economy would suffer, leaving Erdogan with the option of not assembling the S-400, despite receiving its parts, if he wants to salvage relations with Washington.