How the Civil War Has Poisoned Syria-Turkey Relations

Turkish army tanks head for the Syrian border town of Afrin, an enclave in northwestern Syria controlled by Kurdish fighters, Hassa, Turkey, Jan. 22, 2018 (AP photo).
Turkish army tanks head for the Syrian border town of Afrin, an enclave in northwestern Syria controlled by Kurdish fighters, Hassa, Turkey, Jan. 22, 2018 (AP photo).
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The changing alliances in Syria’s civil war have pitted militaries and militias against each other, drawing Turkey progressively deeper into the conflict. Find out more when you subscribe to World Politics Review (WPR).

In January 2018, Turkish forces attacked Afrin, a Kurdish-controlled enclave in northwestern Syria, putting both American and Russian plans for Syria to the test. Most of Afrin’s original inhabitants are Kurds belonging to the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. The YPG is a Syrian appendage of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, which has been locked in conflict with the Turkish government since the 1970s. The YPG has also been the primary ally of the United States in its mission to smash the so-called Islamic State. With that mission mostly complete, the United States announced it was poised to shift gears to focus on stabilizing former Islamic State areas now under YPG control, including by training Kurdish security forces.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t take kindly to this news, accusing the U.S. of building a PKK “terror army” on Turkey’s southern border. America’s strategic recommitment to the Kurds seems to have been one reason for the sudden rush to war. Erdogan’s choice of Afrin was simple: It is the only YPG-held area not protected by the U.S. Air Force. Due to the political geography of northwestern Syria, Kurdish forces in Afrin mainly faced Turkish- and American-backed rebels vying for control of the border region north of Aleppo. For the U.S. to give air support in Afrin would have meant being drawn into a “proxy war with itself.”

In the end, Afrin’s defenders had a poor hand to play. The YPG faces a far more powerful adversary whose goal is not to win concessions but to destroy it.

To learn more about Turkey’s decision to intervene directly in Syria’s civil war, read With Turkey’s Rush to War Against Syrian Kurds, What Is the Endgame in Afrin? for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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Changing Conditions in Syria Alter Turkey’s Strategic Goals

The attack on Afrin was made possible a year earlier by an apparent setback for Turkey in the Syrian civil war. The fall of rebel-held eastern Aleppo was a stunning personal blow for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government had openly backed Syrian rebel groups after the civil war began in 2011. Losing the rebels’ self-styled “capital of the revolution” to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies seemed like an insurmountable setback for years of Turkish regime-change efforts in Syria. But there is a silver lining. After his defeat in Aleppo, Erdogan could focus all his attention on enforcing his own red line: no independent Kurdish state in Syria.

To learn more about Turkish plans for a post-civil war Syria, read After the Fall of Aleppo, Turkey’s Erdogan Digs In His Heels Against Syria’s Kurds for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Turkey-U.S. Relations Are a Victim of the Syrian Civil War

Turkey's involvement in Syria's civil war has come with real costs, perhaps nowhere more visible than in Turkey-U.S. relations. In July 2017, Turkey’s state news agency, Anadolu, published sensitive information about the U.S. military footprint in northern Syria. Meanwhile, the Turks fumed as Washington strengthened military and political ties to the main Syrian Kurdish militia, which Ankara considers a terrorist group. Needless to say, relations have seen better days. Until they can find some form of resolution to their disagreement over the Syrian Kurdish issue, Washington and Ankara will suffer the consequences of mutual strategic ambiguity.

To learn more about the breakdown in Turkey–U.S. relations, read Differences Over Syria Continue to Sour Turkish-American Relations for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

With the Deal on Idlib, Erdogan Tilts Closer to Putin in the Syrian Civil War

In September, Turkey and Russia, largely on opposites sides of the Syrian civil war, struck an 11th-hour deal to prevent a military assault by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on the last remaining rebel stronghold of Idlib in northwestern Syria. The deal allowed Turkey to breathe a sigh of relief, as it is already struggling to accommodate an estimated 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Rather than a new refugee crisis on his border, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan got a domestic boost by being able to argue that his steadfast foreign policy is saving lives. The Turks can now also claim that despite intense pressure, they did not turn their backs on rebel allies in their last stronghold. Erdogan hopes to leverage the deal to continue to pressure the United States to end its support for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria, which has once again become a flashpoint in the volatile relations between the two NATO allies. The Idlib deal is a signal to the U.S. that Erdogan could continue to tilt closer to Putin if Washington doesn’t reconsider its approach to northern Syria as a whole.

To learn more about the impact of the Idlib deal on Turkey's role in Syria, read The Deal Over Idlib’s Fate Keeps Putin in the Driver’s Seat in Syria for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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Learn more about Turkey’s stake in the Syrian civil war, and a wide variety of other topics, in the vast, searchable library of World Politics Review (WPR):

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Editor's Note: This article was first published in August 2018 and is regularly updated.

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