When the Turkish military finally overran the Syrian town of Afrin recently it was a bloody, hectic scene. Thousands died and hundreds of thousands more civilians fled the area as refugees. But rather than fighting Islamic extremists, the Turks were rousting out the Kurds who have been fighting alongside U.S. forces in the area. The town was looted and essentially destroyed. Now Turkey is threatening to move against other Kurdish outposts and this could put them on a direct collision course with American forces in the area.
We’re clearly reaching a breaking point with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and no matter how complicated and distasteful it may be to the White House, something needs to be done about it. I rarely get the chance to agree with the Washington Post editorial board these days, but this weekend they hit the nail on the head in calling on President Trump to demand better behavior and more cooperation from the Turks or risk ending our already crumbling alliance entirely.
Mr. Erdogan, who seems to grow steadily more power-drunk, is likely bluffing. But the United States now faces an acute strategic problem in Syria: how to preserve its de facto control over a large stretch of territory east of the Euphrates River without going to war against a NATO ally. A continued U.S. presence is needed to complete the defeat of the Islamic State, prevent Iran from consolidating control over the country and leverage an acceptable settlement to Syria’s civil war. But preserving the alliance with Turkey is also a vital U.S. interest.
The easy way out of the dilemma is to cave in to Mr. Erdogan. But that would only stir up more trouble for the Trump administration, both in Syria and in Turkey…
[R]elations with Turkey cannot be mended unless Washington demands more from Mr. Erdogan. As a start, Mr. Trump should insist that Turkey release U.S. citizens it is holding as de facto hostages, and that domestic repression be relaxed. Mr. Erdogan should be pushed to reopen peace negotiations with the Kurds. If he continues on his present, reckless path, a rupture in the alliance is inevitable, sooner or later. Syria’s Kurds should not be sacrificed to prevent it.
Suggestions of an all-out war between the United States and Turkey are (hopefully) overblown, but we’re quickly running out of options. If the Turks press forward in the region and attempt to oust or destroy more Kurdish population centers we’re going to either have to flee the area and abandon our allies in the fight against ISIS or stand and fight one of our supposed NATO allies. Neither is a desirable option, but at this point, the Kurds are far more loyal to the United States and the west than Turkey has been for years. The fighting option would probably require even more U.S. forces in the region, which won’t make anyone back home happy, but what else can we do?
The obvious solution should be diplomacy, but thus far all attempts to reason with Erdogan have produced nothing but defiance and a doubling down on his existing strategy. The WaPo board is correct in saying that President Trump needs to take a hard line here, demanding the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson and other U.S. citizen hostages, as well as setting up some sort of negotiations where a fair settlement for the Kurds can be reached. Failing that, we’ll wind up fighting a proxy war in Syria against a nation which was supposed to be on our side. The only other choice is retreat, handing a complete victory to Turkey and casting doubts about America’s resolve in support of our friends around the globe.
I’m not saying that any of these options are ideal, but Turkey has become an intractable problem of late. A calamitous situation may require a blunt force solution if push comes to shove.