Ankara’s latest military operation into the Afrin enclave in Syria is yet another example of Turkey’s drift from NATO. It is a de facto proxy war against the United States and part of a broader Turkish ambition for regional hegemony.
The U.S.-Turkish relationship had endured for over 70 years. In March 1947, President Harry S. Truman announced to congress that his government would endeavour to support any nation threatened by communism. In what became known as the Truman Doctrine, the president pledged $400 million in support of both Greece and Turkey.
So began a legacy of close relations between Ankara and Washington. The following year, Turkey became a recipient of Marshal Plan aid, and in 1952 Turkey joined NATO, Article 5 of which states that an attack against one is an attack against all.
Sure, there were setbacks. In 1964, for example, Turkey was enraged by President Lyndon Johnson’s stern letter demanding Ankara desist from intervening in Cyprus. Another fallout ensued the following decade after Turkey actually did invade the island, and the U.S. responded with an arms embargo. In more recent years Turkey refused the U.S. the use of the strategic Incirlik airbase ahead of the 2003 Iraq War.
Yet for all intents and purposes the U.S. and Turkey remained bosom buddies. Arms contracts were signed, strategic dialogues and exercises continued and shared enemies were identified whether they be the Soviets (or later Russians) or Islamist militancy.
With the Islamically inclined Justice and Development Party (AKP) in power since 2002, the U.S. could point to Turkey as an example of a Muslim democracy, a much-needed ally in the War on Terror. At one point during his presidency, Barack Obama even stated that Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of his most trusted international friends.
But that was then. Over the weekend, Ankara launched the rather Orwellian sounding "Operation Olive Branch" offensive into Syria's Afrin, a mainly Kurdish town and outer basin located west of the Euphrates River, held by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Not wishing to overburden the reader with acronyms, suffice to say that Ankara alleges (not without reason) that the PYD and PYG are affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has been waging a separatist struggle against Turkey since the late 1970s, a conflict which has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Turks and Kurds. The U.S. supports the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) which consists of some Arab fighters but mainly units of the YPG. They are key U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS.
Ankara was angered by U.S. plans to use the SDF, and, by extension, the PYG, for a new 30,000 strong border-force to prevent ISIS or al-Qaeda factions from regaining a stronghold in the north of Syria. Ankara was concerned that this would embolden the YPG and lead to a hostile autonomous canton that could be used as a launch-pad for attacks against Turkey.
But in creating a border force following the defeat of ISIS, Washington made the right decision. The U.S. has seen first-hand in Iraq what can happen when a military force is disbanded. Armed, battle-hardened, and without money, there is a very real risk that fighters might splinter off and join new groups or militias. Better channel their energy to good use.
Meanwhile, Washington is also right that the demise of ISIS should not be taken for granted; a force is needed to prevent their re-emergence, one that is local and indigenous while making sure there is no room for Iran to capitalize on a U.S. withdrawal.
Washington made it abundantly clear to Ankara that Afrin would be excluded from its new border force. In other words, the Turkish pretext for launching the incursion, the prevention of a PYG force in the Afrin corridor, is bogus.
To make matters worse, before Turkey launched its new operation it was not U.S. or NATO coordination that was sought. Instead Ankara looked for Russian permission.
It is with Moscow that Turkey has signed an agreement to purchase the S400 surface-to-air missile system despite objections from NATO partners. This is despite Russia invading the Crimea, violating Finnish and Estonian airspace and whose vessels steer close to the territorial waters of European NATO nations. In all likelihood Russia launches cyber-attacks against NATO members and allegedly interfered in the U.S. presidential election. Turkey’s cuddling up to Russia only highlights the extent to which Turkey has left the NATO fold.
Behind Turkey’s anti-U.S. stance lies an imperial ambition. Turkey wishes to assert itself as a regional hegemon by muscling out the U.S.
Just like America, Ankara has set up a base in Qatar. It has also established one in Somalia, a country where the U.S. has bad memories after its failed mission in 1993. Turkey has also been on the forefront in the campaign against President Donald J. Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
And now in Syria, Turkey is seeking to dislodge the U.S. presence by backing the Free Syrian Army against the U.S.-supported SDF. This latest operation is nothing less than a proxy war against the U.S. Erdogan has even expressed his intention to continue after Afrin.
Ankara wants to finish the job it started with its first foray into Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield, which was completed in March of last year. Erdogan stated that after Afrin, Turkish forces will march on to Manbij, and then even further towards the Iraqi border where PYG forces are located. In other words, to obliterate U.S.-supported forces.
America, and President Trump, have a very real problem. Not only are they fighting a proxy war against the U.S.'s traditional enemies, Russia and Iran, but it is also being challenged by its traditional ally and partner, Turkey, which is seeking to replace U.S. influence in the region.
The Afrin crisis represents one of the biggest challenges for the Trump administration and the NATO alliance now, and for the coming years.
Dr Simon A. Waldman is a Mercator-IPC fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center and a visiting research fellow at King's College London. He is the co-author of the recently published The New Turkey and Its Discontents (Oxford University Press: 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1