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Caroline O’Leary is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
On Wednesday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced the end of Operation Euphrates Shield, deeming the military campaign, which began in August of 2016, a success. The operation brought an armored battalion and supporting ground forces across the border into Syria, the first direct Turkish military intervention into the country. The campaign had two declared objectives: to remove self-proclaimed Islamic State forces from towns along the Turkish-Syrian border towns and to prevent armed Kurdish groups from advancing. Achieving the former clearly helped bring the United States closer to its own goal to “demolish and destroy ISIS.” Turkey’s efforts to stunt Kurdish progress, however, significantly complicate U.S. interests in the region.
The Kurdish groups that Euphrates Shield targeted are the United States’ most effective ground partner in combatting the Islamic State. But these forces also have ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which for decades has waged an insurgency against Turkey and is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Turkey, and the European Union. U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group of mostly-Kurdish forces, has been a sore spot for U.S.-Turkish relations throughout the United States’ involvement in the Syrian civil war. The SDF is made up mostly of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a PKK-affiliated group that is the dominant Kurdish group in Syria. Though Euphrates Shield is officially over—a development that came just one day before U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Ankara—tensions over U.S. support for Kurdish groups will remain.
These challenges will need to be addressed as the U.S.-led coalition to counter the Islamic State as well as rebel and Kurdish forces move to take Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria. Just last week the United States military airlifted Kurdish fighters as part of a combat operation for the first time, indicating a coming increase in U.S. support for the fighters. Last month, the Center for Preventive Action released a discussion paper entitled “Reconciling U.S.-Turkish Interests in Northern Syria,” which details the competing interests in the region and offers recommendations for the Trump administration. Author Aaron Stein, resident senior fellow in the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, lays out the strategic options that policymakers have and the risks involved with each.
Given the complexity of the situation, addressing only one aspect of the conflict could undermine long-term U.S. interests in the region. To both improve the U.S. relationship with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, Turkey, and to defeat the Islamic State, Stein recommends that the United States:
- Offer to mediate peace talks between the PKK and the Turkish government. Given the U.S. involvement with both Turkey and Kurdish groups, the United States can exercise leverage to negotiate a ceasefire and mediate peace talks.
- Quietly indicate support for a decentralized future Syrian state. While this is a politically difficult proposal, “absent a clear articulation of what it is that the United States wants in Syria—besides defeating the Islamic State—the United States will struggle to articulate a viable political solution.”
- Utilize any progress from PKK-Turkish talks to instigate ceasefires between the YPG and Arab/Turkmen insurgents. While the United States has little leverage among these groups now, Stein notes that this approach, “in tandem with renewed efforts to work with Russia to broker a Syria-wide cease-fire,” could lead to another round of negotiations. It would also require continued U.S. diplomatic involvement in the conflict.
While Stein acknowledges the competing interests of the actors involved in northern Syria, he advocates for an approach that addresses these conflicts in order to advance long-term U.S. interests in the region. Read “Reconciling U.S.-Turkish Interests in Northern Syria” for an in-depth analysis of U.S. options in northern Syria.