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Reconciling U.S.-Turkish Interests in Northern Syria

A CFR Discussion Paper

Author: Aaron Stein, Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council

Reconciling U.S.-Turkish Interests in Northern Syria - aaron-stein-reconciling-us-turkish-interests-in-northern-syria  

Publisher Council on Foreign Relations Press

Release Date February 2017



Since spring 2015, Turkey has suffered a wave of high-profile terror attacks linked to the self-proclaimed Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). In response, Turkey deployed ground combat forces across the border into Syria, with the aim of pushing the Islamic State and Kurdish forces from a small self-declared "safe zone."

Turkey faces a complicated, interrelated conflict: its military operations in Syria are partly designed to counter the insurgency it faces within its borders. The linkages between the Syrian conflict and domestic Turkish security are driving internal political instability, and the outcome of the Syrian conflict will have repercussions for U.S.-Turkey relations and U.S. policy objectives in Syria.

Although some of the United States' and Turkey's objectives in northern Syria are complementary, others are contradictory. The various actors involved in the conflict are pursuing different interests and goals often at odds with those of the United States. Meanwhile, most armed groups are also targeting the Islamic State. Thus, a U.S. effort to address only one aspect of the conflict (e.g., arming Kurdish groups to fight the Islamic State) could undermine competing objectives in the region (e.g., maintaining a strong relationship with Ankara).

The United States needs to consider the effects of its intervention in northern Syria on Turkey, its North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, and on terrorist groups it seeks to destroy, including the Islamic State and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an umbrella organization dominated by al-Qaeda elements. The same challenges that confronted the Barack Obama administration will persist during the Donald J. Trump administration. To address these systemic problems, the United States should reconcile the contradictory aspects of its relationship with Turkey, including considering whether it is possible to eradicate the Islamic State without also addressing the Kurdish-Turkish sub-conflict or whether U.S. forces should participate in a new front in the multisided civil conflict.

Map of the Border Between Syria and Turkey

syria turkey border map

More About This Publication

Aaron Stein is a resident senior fellow in the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. He was previously a doctoral fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, an associate fellow for the Royal United Services Institute, and a researcher with the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. He also worked as a consultant for the International Crisis Group in Istanbul and has published articles and reports on Turkey's nuclear capabilities and Turkish elections. Stein holds a BA in politics from the University of San Francisco and an MA in international policy studies from Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Stein received his PhD in Middle East and Mediterranean studies from Kings College, London.

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