Could the US Sacrifice Rojava to Restore Relations with Turkey?

By Lazghine Ya’qoube

On March 1, 2003, Turkey’s Grand National Assembly (TBMM) failed to pass a motion to allow the participation of Turkish armed forces in the US-led invasion of Iraq, and concurrently give assent for foreign troops to be deployed on Turkish soil to serve that end. That failure, or rather democratic rejection, has ever since marked a watershed in the US-Turkey relationship. This article attempts to shed light on the historical relationship between the two countries, and where it stands today.

Historical Prologue

In 1799, the American President Johns Adams appointed William Smith minister to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople (now renamed Istanbul) to negotiate a treaty of peace and commerce with the Ottoman Empire. Later, however, the mission was abandoned but not the idea. In 1829, US President Andrew Jackson assigned that task to the trio Charles Rhind, David Offley, and James Biddle. Successfully, the result was the treaty of Commerce and Navigation of 1830, the first ever treaty signed by the United States with an Oriental state. A year later, an American legation was opened in Constantinople with David Porter as charge d’affaires.

During World War I, the United States did not engage with the decaying Ottoman Empire that aligned with Germany, though its delayed engagement in hostilities (as of April 6, 1917) was owing to the unrestricted and formidable German U-boat submarine campaign against the trade routes of the Allies.

Following the Paris Peace Conference (1919-1920), the Congress rejected a recommendation made by President Wilson Woodrow on May 24, 1920, asking for Executive power to accept an American mandate over fledgling Armenia. Had the Armenian mandate been accepted, Kurdistan could have been given birth too.

Three years later, the United States was invited to Lausanne, but restricted its role to that of an observer, and when the famous treaty was signed (July 24, 1923), Turkey’s main negotiator Ismet Inonu remained for two additional weeks in Switzerland as he was engaged with Joseph Crew, the US representative to negotiate a separate “American” Lausanne Treaty. The agreement that was signed on August 6, 1923, set the cornerstone for relations between the two countries for decades to come.

In retrospect, Syria in 1799—with no marked or precise boundaries yet demarcated—was divided among a number of Ottoman vilayets. However, since 2011, Syria—a successor state to the defunct Ottoman Empire—presents itself as a critical touchstone for the historically-ingrained economic and diplomatic relations that Turkey and the US have nurtured. The significance of Turkey’s geopolitical position to American interests was highlighted by the former US President Bill Clinton when he said: “I think it is very important that we do everything reasonable to anchor Turkey to the West. If you look at the size of the country, what it can block and what it can open doors to, it is terribly important.” More recently, however, northern Syria (Rojava) linked to Turkey’s southern border has been the theatre where relations between the two NATO supposed ‘allies’ have been roiling to their worst ever levels.

In 1952, Turkey was admitted to NATO partly on account of US pressure and recommendation. Straddling both the Middle East and the Black Sea at the convergence of Europe and Asia, Turkey occupies a unique and yet very strategic geopolitical location. A fulcrum position which Turkey is deeply aware of and has manipulated for its own domestic and regional interests repeatedly. Likewise, Turkey was the buttress for Euro-Atlantic security against the Soviet Union. However, this has been changing for a while, notably to the favor of Russia, the Soviet Union’s successor. Addressing and analyzing the reasons for this shift is essential in understanding modern US-Turkey relations as they stand currently.

In the aftermath of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent emergence of new states in the Caucasus and Central Asia, things took a different approach. While the non-linearity of US-Turkish relations came to the fore first in the aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union, afterwards Turkey no longer played the role of a NATO “Forward Observation Post” (FOP). Yet, there is another side to this historical situation that requires addressing.

Here Come the Kurds

Remarkably, two astonishing – yet tremendously similar – reasons lie behind the deterioration in US-Turkish relations. The first has its foundation in the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the eventual de facto autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). The second, and yet a more aggravating one, is the emergence of the other Kurdish autonomous region of Rojava since 2012. Yet while in 2003 relations between the two historical allies began to loosen, the knot since 2014 has been steadily unraveling.

On November 3, 2002, the untethered Justice and Development Party (AKP) – which was founded only a little over a year before, won a landslide victory in Turkey. Since then, Erdoğan’s party has emerged as a new aggressive political player in the Middle East. Only a few months later, in January 2003 to be exact, and with preparations already made to invade Iraq, Washington asked Ankara to allow access to six Turkish airbases and airports and three ports on the Mediterranean coast, where 255 airplanes and 65 helicopters were to be stationed, provide free passage to 80,000 US troops to northern Iraq, and – most importantly – to give clearance to the deployment of 62,000 US Special Forces to Turkish soil as a support force for five years. A similar number of Turkish forces could take part in the operation in the Kurdish north of Iraq.

Accordingly, on the expected Parliament’s approval, Turkish government approved US technical personnel upgrading several bases and sending men, vehicles, and material to the port of Alexandretta (İskenderun) noting at the same time that the approval did not construe further measures for allowing American troops be deployed on Turkish soil.

However, on March 1, 2003, the Turkish Parliament – against all expectations – rejected a motion to grant permission to Turkish forces to take part in the US-coalition war against Saddam Hussein. US troops who had been waiting for a while on the Mediterranean then had to sail to the Arabian (Persian) Gulf and eventually took no part in the Iraqi dictator’s deposition.

Contrary to Turkey’s role played in “Operation Provide Comfort” in northern Iraq in 1991 – without which the operation could not have met success – and whose drawing board is attributed to Turkish President Turgut Özal (who was half Kurdish), Turkish forces did not take part in the “Coalition of the Willing.” To keep the ball rolling however, Turkey blocked its airbases but opened its airspace for refueling and transport flights, being the last NATO member state to do so. The Turkish vote against the Iraq invasion surprised Moscow and inspired a similar response elsewhere. Moscow was not going to let this pass unnoticed, as Russia is very adept historically at exploiting geopolitical weaknesses.

The Turks, particularly since the Iraq War and the establishment of the de facto autonomous Kurdish region in the north of the country, have always looked at the American’s Kurdish policy with suspicion. Nearly a decade later, and within the context of the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) on Syrian soil, Turkey and US relations would turn sour further, when Ankara refused to join Washington in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Notably, both “rejections” were driven by the AKP’s philosophical worldview. Additionally, saying “no” to the US in 2003 presented Turkey as a supposed ‘independent’ role model to the Middle East (most notably to Syria), and a potential partner to Russia contrary to the classic approach of centuries-old hostilities.

Syrian Opportunities & Hurdles

When the uprising started in Syria early in 2011, Turkish officials advised Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to deliver reform to the country. However – though partly – it was the US that asked Erdoğan to take the lead against his friend Assad. To serve this end, US President Barack Obama in 2012 twice sent David Petraeus, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to Ankara to convince Erdoğan to spearhead the battle.

From August 2011 up to December 2013, Turkey recklessly dragged its feet behind Obama’s undecided approach in dealing with the Syrian crisis in general, and the plan for regime change in Damascus in particular. Later, it was learned that while Obama was making offhand remarks about Syria – a country which he himself admitted was not of great strategic importance to the United States – the administration was focused on other priorities.

In August 2011, Obama became the very first foreign leader to call on Assad to leave office. Days later, the Syrian National Council (SNC) was announced in Istanbul. In the same month, the Free Officers Movement which served as the nucleus of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was founded. Then, in January 2012, FSA and SNA struck a deal to work hand-in-hand to depose the Syrian regime. As such, Turkey began to provide training, logistical, and material support to the Syrian opposition.

However, Obama’s announced policy took a new and yet different twist when in August 2012, he drew a new approach highlighting that any use of chemical weapons by Assad against his people would constitute a “red line” requiring American military action. Nevertheless, Obama would later abruptly change course on the “red line” a year after its enunciation.

In 2013, nearly two and a half years into the Syrian uprising, the White House rejected a plan developed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus to arm and train Syrian rebels, siting concerns that arms could fall into the wrong hands (extremist jihadists). This period was marked by the coming into fore of various armed Islamist groups, who engaged in the fight against Syrian regime forces. Deposing or even fighting Assad it seemed was no longer a Western (US) priority.

On August 21, 2013, when Obama’s “red line” was blatantly crossed, and the President insisted the US should take military action against Syria but would first seek Congress authorization, Obama – as a result of a Russian mediation – gave up the military threat of removing Assad’s 1,300 tons of chemical weapons.

In December 2013, both the United States and the United Kingdom suspended non-lethal aid for Syrian opposition fighters. Worryingly for Ankara, in the throes of the battle for Kobanê (2014-2015), the US changed course and began providing supplies to the encircled Kurdish forces in the city. In Kobanê, the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS was forged in partnership with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the all-female Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). By November 2015, US Special Forces were deployed to Syria not to depose Assad – much to Erdoğan’s humiliation – but rather to train, aid, and arm Syria’s Kurds, who had been muddying the Turkish-US waters by defeating the ISIS militants that Erdoğan was rooting for (and even assisting).

While Washington has always maintained its main objective in Syria was to incur a lasting defeat upon ISIS, the rhetoric has never assuaged Ankara, which is meticulously perturbed by a potential Kurdish enclave (Western Kurdistan) beneath its southern border in Syria – protected by the US – similar to the one in northern Iraq (Southern Kurdistan). The support rendered by the US to Kurds in Syria has been an infuriating issue for Turkey ever since.

The years 2014 and 2015 were decisive for Turkish-US relations. The US policy in Syria has brought Turkey into a state of a political upheaval, pushing Ankara to look for more seemingly reliable partners. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia seems an appealing alternative. In 2016, and while Turkey was gradually leaving the American fold, Putin and Erdoğan were establishing closer relations and ties. Up to 2016, both countries were united only by economic interests, yet diverged on political issues particularly over the Syrian civil war.

At some point during the Syrian Crisis, many observers were of the belief that Russia and Turkey could collide at any moment, especially following the downing by a Turkish fighter jet of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24, late in November 2015. However, what followed was a surprise to observers. In June 2016, Erdoğan sent a letter of regret to Putin extending his wish to restore traditional relations and most importantly voicing readiness to fight “terror” (not ISIS, but he meant Kurds) in the region. Two days after the letter, Russian Airline Aeroflot lifted the ban on flights to Turkey, which were imposed following the downing of the Su-24. This move was a convincing signal that Russia was ready and eager to reconcile with Turkey.

The 15th of July 2016, was a turning point in Turkish foreign policy relations. As the story of the military coup broke and was developing in Turkey, Putin was quick off the mark. In a phone call, the Russian President showed solidarity and offered military support to Erdoğan. The West and particularly the US belatedly condemned the failed coup, even as the bloody purges focused on the military and civil servants ensued.

Turkish officials accused the Turkish Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen – who was in a self-imposed exile in the US – of masterminding the coup. On August 9, Erdoğan visited Moscow in his first visit since the failed coup. Erdoğan’s visit made headlines in that summer, serving as a crucial signal of what was to come.

Three days later on August 12, the Kurdish-led (but multi-ethnic) Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced their capture of the city of Manbij. That takeover of the strategic and ancient city was going to dominate and mar the US-Turkey relations considerably. Twelve days to that announcement, Turkish forces launched “Operation Euphrates Shield” into Jarablus (Girgamêş), supposedly to distance ISIS fighters from its border, but in reality to prevent SDF from connecting Kobanê (east of the Euphrates River) with Efrîn (Afrin) in northwest Aleppo. Turkey saw the emergence of a potentially connected Western Kurdistan on the map running from Derik to Efrîn, which could facilitate the eventual creation of a Northern Kurdistan in southeast Turkey. On the day the operation was mounted, then US Vice-President Joe Biden, paid a visit to Ankara to limit the damage caused in the aftermath of the coup. Biden who was received with snubs, denied any prior knowledge of the failed coup. Seemingly, the Vice-President could not ameliorate the damage caused.

Detente on the Bosphorus

In October 2016, Putin and Erdoğan met again on the margins of the World Energy Congress held in Istanbul. A month later, it emerged that Turkey was interested in purchasing the S-400 missile system. In December, east Aleppo was evacuated by pro-Turkey opposition factions. It was a clear indication of how deep Turkish-Russian coordination was becoming, and most importantly, Turkey was taken onboard the Astana meetings whose drawing board was set in Moscow earlier in December 2016.

The murder in Istanbul of the Russian Ambassador, Andrei Karlov, on December 19, 2016, did not produce the expected damage as rapprochement, though fragile, was steadily ongoing. Three days after Karlov’s brazen murder, the city of Aleppo – allegedly the main cause of the Russian diplomat’s assassination – was evacuated by the opposition. Ironically, the Syrian Crisis became the glue holding together Turkish-Russia partnership.

As the eight years of his office – marked by the unbroken war in Syria – were drawing to a close, and reflecting on the Syrian War, Obama said at his farewell press conference in December 2016, that the Syrian regime and its allies had “blood on their hands”; with a humbling admission about the limits of Presidential power.

Much of the warmth between Turkey and Russia owes to the personal rapport between Putin (in power since 2000) and Erdoğan (in power since 2003). Erdoğan also had a friendly rapport with Donald Trump. Biden, however, has kept himself at a distance from Erdoğan. In turn, ever since 2016, Putin has shown a certain degree of empathy for Erdoğan notably in Syria. Obama’s undecided policy in Syria seems to have Putinized Erdoğan.

More recently, on the background of purchasing the S-400 missile system, Turkey was excluded from the US F-35 striker jet program in 2021. Turkey instead has set its sights on 40 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets and 79 modernization kits to upgrade its outdated F-16 fleet.

In mid-January, Biden’s administration – following an extensive consideration – notified the Congress of its intention to sell 40 F-16s to Turkey. On January 20, Erdoğan’s advisor on security and foreign policy, Cagri Erhan wrote that it is high time for Turkey to close the book on American weapons in defense industry procurement. Erhan also added that Turkey is neither obligated to buy, nor in need of F-16s. Days later, Bob Menendez, Chairman of the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, reiterated he will not approve the deal to proceed. The sale of 40 F-16s is part of the problem currently between the two states, though by no means the whole problem.

However, while observers say the recent bid could be conditioned on the admission of Sweden and Finland into NATO, which tactically makes sense, Biden could have a more far-fetching strategic goal behind the deal. That is to induce, or rather revert Ankara back into the American lap, as it believes the deal would be in line with US national security interests and would also serve NATO’s long-term unity.

Whether the United States will either await the result of Turkey’s presidential elections to embark on a new era with Erdoğan’s opponents in the “Table of Six” alliance in case it wins the next elections, or proactively grant Erdoğan a green light somewhere in Rojava to restore its ally – remains to be seen.

Undoubtedly, Rojava lies at the heart of Turkey-US’s cooling relations. However, the question that repeatedly poses itself and continues to be unanswered, is to what extent the United States will remain dedicated to its Kurdish partners in Rojava (who are a colossal stumbling block between the two NATO nations). Disturbingly, history demonstrates that traditionally it is the Kurds who have lost in this game of power and hegemonic aspirations. With limited choices, the Kurds have suffered grievously between the national interests of the two states, especially from the Trump administration’s abandonment in 2019 (when he greenlighted the Turkish invasion and subsequent occupation of Serê Kaniyê and Girê Spî).

Yet, to their credit, Washington has not fully given in to Ankara’s belligerent demands for an ethnically cleansed Kurdish-free “safe zone” along their border within northern Syria. All the while, the people of Rojava must still remain constantly vigilant of a day when their effectiveness at keeping ISIS defeated may no longer be valued by the US, and be outweighed by larger geopolitical considerations.


  • Lazghine Ya’qoube

    Lazghine Ya’qoube is a Rojava-based translator, author, and researcher on the modern history of Mesopotamia with a special focus on Kurdish, Yazidi and Assyrian affairs around World War I. He has written extensively on topics related to the current Syrian Crises.

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