The Jerusalem Post – Why is the US still helping Turkey sabotage its role in Syria?

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during the re-opening of the Ottoman-era Yildiz Hamidiye mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, August 4, 2017 (photo credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)
Original article by Seth J. Frantzman, The Jerusalem Post, 27 August 2020

Washington sent its most pro-Turkey diplomat to Ankara this week as Turkey’s regime hosted Hamas leaders in a red-carpet ceremony in Istanbul. Former US ambassador James Jeffrey, who is now the US envoy for Syria and the anti-ISIS campaign, went to Turkey and said the US had “proved our value in many fields outside of Syria.” The comments were reported on Turkey’s TRT and by pro-government media in Turkey.

Turkey is the largest jailer of journalists in the world and almost all of its media is now on the side of the ruling party. Jeffrey’s comments appeared to be an attempt to appease Turkey, a day after the US had slammed the regime for hosting Hamas terrorists.

The comments by Jeffrey are the latest in his endless praise of Turkey and never holding the country to account. The US State Department critiqued Ankara for hosting Hamas members. In response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed the US had sided with terrorist organizations in Syria. In response, Jeffrey made his comment about how the US was trying to prove its value to Turkey.
Usually, smaller countries like Turkey are expected to prove their values as allies to the US, but in the Ankara-Washington relationship, it is the other way around. Although Turkey buys Russia’s S-400 system and works with Iran and US adversaries, some American officials still seek to placate Turkey, even up to the point of sabotaging other US policies in the Middle East.  

In recent years, Ankara has imprisoned an American pastor and consular official, threatened US soldiers and continually bashed the US and its allies such as Israel. However, some in the Trump administration are very close to Ankara and often appear to enable Turkey’s increasingly aggressive behavior against Greece, its invasions of Syria, bombing of Iraq and bashing of Israel.

For instance, according to pro-government Anadolu media in Turkey, Erdogan called Trump this week after hosting Hamas. Turkey spoke about its demands in the Eastern Mediterranean, where it has harassed Greece and also sought to stop an Israeli-Greek pipeline. The USS Winston S. Churchill destroyer participated in a naval exercise in the Mediterranean with Turkey’s Barbados and Burgazada frigates on August 26.  

WHILE THE US navy was conducting the passing exercise of Passex with Turkish counterparts, Washington was also working with Ankara to sideline its own partners in Syria. Since 2015, the US Central Command has worked with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to fight ISIS. Some in the US State Department, however, have always preferred other Syrian rebel groups and sought to work through Ankara to support more extreme Islamist groups that Turkey favors.

Turkey has sought to take over Kurdish areas in northern Syria and displace Kurds by settling mostly Arab Syrian refugees and armed militias in areas previously under Kurdish control. Turkish-backed militias in Syria are accused of kidnapping women from ethnic minorities and targeting women activists for assassination. As part of this effort to back extremists, Ankara calls the SDF, which the US arms and trains, a “terrorist” group. There is no evidence of any terrorism from Syria directed against Turkey, except by ISIS. Nevertheless, Turkey views the SDF as linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).  

US envoy Jeffrey praised the Syrian Constitutional Committee on August 26, mentioning the third round of meetings in Geneva where America has backed Syrian opposition groups in dialogue to end the conflict in Syria. However, the State Department’s envoys who are pro-Turkey have sidelined US partners in Syria and made sure they are unable to play any role in the Syrian peace process.

Jeffrey said the meetings in Geneva were a “good start, much helped by Turkey’s encouragement of all members of the Constitutional Committee, particularly the opposition.” But Washington has worked with Ankara to exclude any group linked to eastern Syria, the same area where the US has the most influence. The Syrian Rojava Information Center news agency noted on August 22 that “all representatives of North and East Syria, a region covering one third of the country and which partnered with the international community to defeat ISIS, are once again excluded from the next round of official negotiations on Syria.”

The result in Syria has been that the US State Department made sure that US Central Command’s partners in the autonomous administration of eastern Syria could play no political role. In short, some in the State Department work against the Pentagon. US adversaries find this comical, knowing they can exploit differences in US policy to weaken the US role in Syria. That is how Turkey, Russia, Iran, China and other countries have eroded the US role.

The excuse that US diplomats use for excluding American partners in Syria is that they are not a “state,” and the US only works with states. But Jeffrey works with other Syrian opposition groups – those sponsored by Turkey. Ironically, the group that the US as a nation has sponsored is the SDF, which gets almost no support from US diplomats who prefer to work with Turkish-backed groups than their own US-backed SDF. While Turkey not only openly hosts Hamas but also Syrian extremist rebel groups, the US diplomats often won’t even meet openly with US partners in eastern Syria.

ON THE SURFACE this makes no sense. But it does make sense if those diplomats’ end goal has been to force the SDF and its civilian components to work with the Syrian regime to take part in Geneva discussions. Those close to Jeffrey’s team have argued on social media that the US could leave eastern Syria, as Washington intended to do in the fall of 2018. America eventually did leave the border area with Turkey in October 2019 – and the result was a Turkish invasion.

The SDF, faced with ethnic cleansing by Ankara’s campaign the way Turkey had forced 160,000 Kurds and minorities out of Afrin in 2018, sought out Damascus and Moscow. Russia signed a deal with Turkey to end its offensive, and Russian patrols were soon in eastern Syria. On August 25, one of the Russian patrols clashed with a US patrol, injuring US Central Command soldiers. The Russians would not have been there had the US not withdrawn.

In addition Turkish-backed rebel groups regularly turn off water to eastern Syria, causing hundreds of thousands to be without water as Covid-19 threats continue. The entire Turkish policy in Syria thus empowers extremists and Russia, isolating US-backed partners. 

The US State Department’s views, at odds with the Pentagon’s mission of defeating ISIS and stabilizing eastern Syria, have been known for years, ever since pro-Ankara voices were advanced to take control of Syria policy. In 2018, Jeffrey said that the future of the Syrian Kurds would be with Damascus. The US doesn’t work with “sub-state entities,” the US envoy said. The State Department characterized the work with the SDF as “tactical, transactional and temporary.” Yet the same officials were warmer in working with Turkish-backed opposition groups – more warm than with their own US partners in eastern Syria.  

The result of the US sidelining the SDF from any political role in Geneva was that it created a strange self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the SDF was forced to work with the Syrian regime and Russia in areas the US had abandoned – and then US officials would point to this work with Damascus and Moscow as evidence of why it should only work with Turkish-backed groups. But the regime in Damascus has rejected an agreement with the SDF and would only incorporate them on its terms. A US initiative to get the SDF to work with Kurdish groups in Iraq was brokered in June, but that idea seems like a dead end because the pro-Turkish diplomats still wouldn’t work with the SDF, even if it shifted to be closer to the Kurdistan Regional Government. The problem for the KRG is that Turkey already occupied parts of northern Iraq and is fighting against the PKK there. Ankara would never allow the KRG to work with the SDF.  

THE US APPEARS to be trying to get Turkey to play a larger role in northern Iraq as well, which would further isolate US partners in eastern Syria. In a briefing with US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq Affairs David Copley and Joey Hood, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, the US officials said they wanted Turkey and Iraq to work closely together to address concerns about the PKK’s presence. Turkey has been bombing northern Iraq, killing civilians and Iraqi security forces, but Washington said that Ankara has “legitimate security concerns.” Turkey occupies part of northern Iraq, and the US calls this “good for stability.”

Hood proposed that Turkey could play a role in the Yazidi area of Sinjar. This is an area where ISIS committed genocide in 2014. Turkey has a track record of discriminating against members of the Yazidi minority. In Afrin, Turkish-backed militants have ethnically cleansed Yazidis and Turkey has been bombing Sinjar, making it difficult for civilians to return to the area. Hood suggested that Turkey, Iraq’s government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government could “clear out militias, including the PKK” from Sinjar. It was unclear why the US official was suggesting Turkey could play a role in Sinjar, since the US doesn’t suggest that Iraq play a role in eastern Turkey, even though Turkey appears to get State Department support for invading Iraq, Syria and other countries.  The US State Department that now proposes that the Kurdistan Regional Government play a role in Sinjar is the same one that in October 2017, when Iraq sent Iranian-backed militias to invade Sinjar, did not work with the Kurdish region to oppose the invasion but instead was busy condemning the Kurds for an independence referendum. The US actually worked with Baghdad in 2017 during the attacks on Kurds that year as Kirkuk and Sinjar were taken over by pro-Iranian groups, such as Kataib Hezbollah. Oddly the US empowered the very militias it now suggests Turkey play a role in removing in northern Iraq. This may be simply because in the end, some in the US government have quietly favored Turkey to take over northern Iraq as it has done with Tel Abyad and Afrin. Since Yazidis have had to flee Turkey’s invasions of those two regions, it is odd that US officials would suggest Ankara play a role in Sinjar and that Yazidis might return home if “militias” are removed.  

THE SINJAR plan mentioned in the August 25 meeting is part of the overall policy of advancing Turkey’s interests throughout Syria and Iraq. In Syria, the US diplomats sideline America’s military partners by making sure they cannot play a role in Geneva and encouraging them to work with Damascus, while also condemning them for doing so. In northern Iraq, the US stood silent as Baghdad and its Iranian-backed militias took over Sinjar from the Kurdistan region in 2017, only to now turn around and suggest that the Kurdistan region and Turkey play a role in Sinjar. The end result of a greater Turkish role in Sinjar would be to cut off the Kurdistan region of Iraq from eastern Syria and further isolate the SDF, which is Ankara’s goal.While the US military continues to try to salvage eastern Syria, it appears that American diplomats actively work toward opposing purposes. A US oil company has recently sought a deal in eastern Syria, but Trump’s calls with Erdogan, Jeffrey’s praise of the Geneva process that sidelines the SDF and other developments do not bode well. The president said the US is leaving Iraq “fairly rapidly” and making decisions on Syria “fairly soon,” in discussions with Iraq’s prime minister on August 20.

The US State Department policy of outsourcing US policy in northern Iraq and Syria to Turkey may dovetail with the White House desire to leave entirely. The Trump administration has long wanted others to take up the slack for the US. The SDF, sidelined and isolated, has nevertheless continued to tamp down on ISIS and hold thousands of ISIS detainees. In recent months, Turkish intelligence has sought to smuggle some families from among the detainees in Al-Hol camp to Turkey. At the same time the SDF faced challenges from tribes near the Euphrates River who chafe under SDF control. This is also the end-result of a US policy that encouraged the SDF to take Arab areas along the Euphrates as part of the anti-ISIS campaign.

While the Kurdish areas of Syria were mostly abandoned by the US in October 2019, the SDF, initially a mostly Kurdish force, came to control mostly Arab areas. This further isolates the SDF from long-term prospects in Syria because the very areas where it was most popular are now under armored patrols by the Syrian regime and Russia. Those are the very patrols that clashed with an American one this week, injuring US soldiers.  The whole situation in eastern Syria continues to limp along as it has for the last two and half years, lacking clarity. Overall, the US diplomats who have been intensely pro-Ankara – to the extent that Ankara’s interests seem to come before the US role in Syria – have left confusion, instability and a lack of faith in Washington’s commitment.