Limited impact of US-Turkey tensions on Syria

US President Joe Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Edited by Enab Baladi)

US President Joe Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Edited by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi-Amal Rantisi

Tensions between Washington and Ankara have further escalated within the first 100 days of Joe Biden’s presidency, when Biden officially recognized the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire in Turkey’s Central Anatolia Region as a genocide.

The official recognition came in a statement published by the White House on 24 April, coinciding with the anniversary of “the Armenian genocide,” which Turkey is accused of. 

Recognition of the genocide is not the only problem between the two NATO allies, but it was the most severe, which resulted in the Turkish Foreign Ministry summoning the US ambassador to Ankara, David Satterfield, to inform him of Turkey’s rejection of Biden’s statements.

Another notable issue that deteriorated ties between the two countries is Ankara’s procurement of the Russian-built S-400 air defense missiles, as the US has imposed economic sanctions on Turkey since the administration of previous US President Donald Trump. 

Washington says that Turkey will likely use the Russian system to collect intelligence information on Western military capabilities, including the US F-35 warplanes.

 Syria as a pressure card 

On 26 April, Bloomberg, an international news agency based in New York City, quoted a Turkish official as saying that Turkey’s possible response to US President Joe Biden’s official categorization of the Ottoman-era mass killing of Armenians as genocide may include the freezing of the Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement between the two countries, and striking Kurdish forces in Syria.

He added that Turkish policy steps might include launching an operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), according to the agency.

The US supports the SDF, especially after the rise of the Islamic State (IS) and its control over large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.

On the other hand, Turkey classifies the SDF as a terrorist organization. Turkey views the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), against which Turkey has fought long battles since the 1980s.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, international relations researcher Mahmoud Alloush ruled out that Turkey would take a step that would damage ties more sharply with the Biden administration even though the US’s stance has already caused a growing mistrust between the two countries. He added that the US, via its recent move, aims to increase pressure on Turkey.

He explained that Ankara has pledged a gradual response to Biden’s move and considered several options; however, the upcoming NATO summit in Brussels between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his US counterpart will determine the future course of relations.

Alloush said that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) file is one of the thorny and overlapping issues between Turkey, America, and Russia. And if Ankara wants to move against the YPG, it needs to obtain Russia’s approval first, which is extremely unlikely, according to the researcher. 

He believes that Moscow will oppose any Turkish attack on the YPG because it does not want Turkey to increase its influence in northern Syria.  

Nevertheless, Ankara and Moscow have a mutual interest in limiting the US role in Syria. There may be new understandings between the two countries to diminish the power of the YPG, Alloush indicated. 

Turkey’s three military operations in Syria

Turkey conducted a military operation code-named Operation Euphrates Shield on 24 August 2016 to expel the IS group from its border region. The operation first targeted the city of Jarablus, lying on the western bank of the Euphrates River, in the northern countryside of Aleppo.

The offensive was also carried out to prevent the Kurdish-led YPG, which forms the backbone of the SDF, from capturing and annexing Jarabulus to the city of Manbij (36 kilometers south of Jarablus), the SDF took Manbij out of the IS’ hands in August 2016.

Operation Euphrates Shield ended on 29 March 2017, after the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and the Syrian National Army (SNA) managed to establish control over Jarabulus, al-Rai, Dabiq, Azaz,  Marea, and finally al-Bab city which was the IS’ stronghold in the region.

On 20 January 2018, the TAF and the SNA began a military operation in the Syrian region of Afrin, dubbed Operation Olive Branch. The operation’s goal was to remove the YPG from the region.

During this operation, the TAF took control of the city of Afrin and its environs, such as Sheeran Raju, Jindires, and other villages and towns.

On 9 October 2019, the Turkish President announced the launch of Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in cooperation with the SNA.

The operation was launched to clear northern Syria bordering Turkey’s southeast from YPG. The TAF and the SNA were able to gain control over the cities of Tell Abyad in rural Raqqa and Ras al-Ain in rural al-Hasakah in addition to the areas between them.

Even though both Russia and the US agreed that Turkey had the right to self-defense in the face of threats against its national security through carrying out Operation Peace Spring and ending the dream of the Kurdish YPG to establish an autonomous Kurdish entity on its border, according to official Turkish statements, some European countries rejected the Turkish offensive and escalated their angry statements towards Ankara.

Tension with Europe over Syria

Last April, the European Parliament adopted a draft resolution accusing Turkey of committing human rights violations in Syria. The parliament called on Turkey to withdraw its soldiers from northern Syria, indicating that Turkey  “occupied northern Syria and endangered peace in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.”

On the other hand, Turkey refused all those accusations, describing them as “far from reality and irresponsible. ”

The Turkish Foreign Ministry highlighted, “Turkey has carried out military operations in northern Syria against terrorist entities that pose a threat to the Syrian and Turkish peoples along the borderline, under the right to self-defense stipulated in Article 51 of the UN Charter.”

The ministry added that the Turkish army has taken all necessary measures to minimize risk to civilians during and after the military operations and has saved the region’s people from the persecution of the IS, the PKK, and YPG.

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