By Uri Marantz
US-Turkish relations are at an all-time low. The northern theatre of the Syrian civil war, going strong for eight years now, is the focal point of the latest tension. Recently, the US has announced that it is doubling down on one of the most effective fighting forces in the region, the Kurds, hoping to capitalize on hard-fought gains that US-backed Kurdish forces have made against the Islamic State (IS). At the same time, Turkish offensives have crippled Kurdish militias resulted in the loss of life for Syrian civilians. The US position has been deliberately ambiguous to avoid antagonizing another close US ally, Turkey, but recent commitments to the Kurds have drawn harsh reactions from the Turks. In response to US promises to the Kurds that it would train a 30,000-strong army to stabilize the region and back a permanent border protection force east of the Euphrates, Turkey has fired back, accusing the US of “building an army of terror” on its doorstep, threatening to “drown” the US-backed forces with its own onslaught, and even firing on US troops if they get in harm’s way. These statements are unprecedented.
Turkish Military Intervention in Northern Syria
Why is the Turkish government launching a military operation into northern Syria in 2018? Is the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, really willing to risk an all-out war with the US over its policy of support for the Kurds in the Syrian civil war? Has the US’ ambiguous policy in northern Syria of low-key but forceful support for the Kurds so they can fight IS without antagonizing the Turks reached the limits of its effectiveness? Amid the many questions one could ask about this perplexing situation, perhaps the most timely one is whether the US has a deliberate strategy that may even remotely succeed. I argue that as long as US forces are strategically embedded among the Kurds in the northern town of Manbij, Turkish forces are unlikely to force the issue and provoke a direct confrontation. There is a certain bargaining logic, a method to this madness, that US commanders are counting on to deter Turkish adventurism in this conflict. The strategic logic is reminiscent of what Thomas C. Schelling, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and scholar of strategy, calls the “art of commitment” in deterring one’s enemies.
Coercion and deterrence are central themes in Schelling’s 1966 classic, Arms and Influence. At its heart, the art of commitment is about relinquishing the initiative. It is important to first maneuver oneself into an advantageous position, a defensible posture, before handing the initiative over to the enemy to force the confrontation. The deterrent is in the “power to hurt” the enemy if they decide to follow through on a reckless course of action, even if it hurts oneself to do so. Of course, words are not enough to make this point. The art of commitment requires action to be credible. This is why standing armies burn bridges behind them: it eliminates any option to retreat in the face of an enemy’s assault, demonstrating a commitment to stand and fight because the only other option is death or defeat. The same counter-intuitive logic applies to the “trip wire” of US forces stationed in Japan and South Korea since the 1950s. By maneuvering themselves into an uncompromising position (of strength, in this case) and then “relinquishing” the initiative, the US has managed to effectively outsource the decision of whether to start a war or not to its enemies. The same logic applies among US allies in Syria today.
US Alliance Politics with Local and Regional Actors
Years of close military coordination with US forces on the ground have helped Kurdish forces clear Islamic State (IS) and other Salafist-jihadist strongholds in the area and establish command and control over what is likely to form the core of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in a post-war Syria. As the Kurds grow more capable, confident, and battle-hardened, however, Turkey is likely to perceive a rising threat and respond with threatening postures and the use of force. Hence the US dilemma: two of its closest allies in the Syrian civil war are actually enemies with starkly divergent preferences. If Turkish forces follow through on their threat to extend the intervention east of Afrin to Manbij, where 2,000 US special forces are stationed as part of the international coalition against IS, the ensuing conflict would not just destabilize northern Syria, it would spark an unprecedented military conflict between the US and Turkey, two central NATO allies.
On January 20, 2018, Turkish forces launched their most recent military intervention in northern Syria against resurgent Kurdish forces. Despite code-naming the latest offensive Operation Olive Branch, its mandate is far from peaceful. The goal is to stymie advances made by the mostly Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the Afrin district, all under the umbrella of the Kurdish Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Turkey claims to be fighting the Islamic State (IS) as well, but no known IS forces are known to exist in this region. This is ironic since Kurdish forces were only able to advance in these territories after they succeeded in fighting to evict IS from wide swathes of northern Syria. In recent weeks, the Kurds have withdrawn strategic garrisons from Deir al-Zour in the east to reinforce besieged positions in Afrin, citing the failure of the US to deter Turkish advances as forcing their hands. This is controversial because the remnants of IS, including its senior leadership, are believed to be holed up there, and the priority of the US and its allies in Syria is supposed to be defeating IS once and for all. So how do Schelling’s bargaining theories help us understand why Turkey is unlikely to force a full-on conflict as long as US forces are stationed in Manbij and integrated with local Kurdish forces?
Arms, Influence, and Deterrence at Play
The US has committed itself to the Kurds in northern Syria more than words ever could by deploying Special Forces in and around Manbij and refusing to evacuate them despite Turkey’s increasingly belligerent demands. US foreign policy has been muddled, confused, and ambiguous in Syria for years, and the election of President Donald J. Trump has done little to change this state of affairs. Nevertheless, US military commanders decided that the risk of supporting Kurdish fighters by deploying ground personnel in this war was worth the benefit long before Turkeys’ latest intervention in northern Syria. For the US to withdraw now would incapacitate the Kurds, risking its progress against IS, inviting Russian and Iranian influence into this part of Syria, and crippling US credibility among its allies going forward. For all these reasons, US commitment to the Kurdish SDF remains intact and the refusal of US forces to vacate the premises in the face of Turkish aggression virtually guarantees that the Turks cannot advance on Manbij as long as US forces are present. While 2,000 US special forces may not be able to stop tens of thousands of Turkish soldiers and Turkish-backed rebels, they may still act as a credible “trip wire” that would provoke a harsh retaliation if crossed.
Following Operation Shah Euphrates in 2015 and Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016-2017, Operation Olive Branch may be part of a strategy to bolster President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s image ahead of a possible election in 2018. The PYD, YPG, SDF, and other Kurdish forces are seen as extensions and enablers of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, a group which the Turkish government has long been at odds with after fighting a decades-long civil war to a virtual stalemate and seeks to punish by targeting Kurds in the Syrian civil war. The anti-Kurdish offensive is part of a tried-and-true strategy of ethnic politics to promote Turkish nationalism and fire up the conservative base. There may be some logic to the diversionary war theory after all, which suggests leaders facing domestic problems divert attention by launching militarized conflicts abroad. If done well, Erdogan may even benefit from rally-round-the-flag effects. Nothing unites the people like the threat, real or imaginary, of a shared enemy. So far, military operations into Syria have proven popular in Turkey. As long as the Turks refrain from targeting US forces, which for now remain embedded in the Kurdish forces in Manbij, Erdogan will likely benefit from Operation Olive Branch and capitalize on the ethnic nationalist dividends gained from Syria.
Uri Marantz is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Conflict Management and Resolution program at NPSIA.