Issue Briefs

Turkey and the US: A Failed Alliance?

Turkey and the US: A Failed Alliance?

Cenk Karatas

October 16, 2019

In Syria, Turkey and the US may be paying the price of a failed alliance.

Here is a fact: PYD is the Syrian wing of PKK, an internationally recognized terrorist organization, while YPG is the military branch of PYD. This is by no means a secret; and all US officials were obviously aware of it. Nonetheless, they cooperated with them for the sake of defeating ISIS in Syria.

When Turkey protested and pointed to the potential complications of this partnership, the Americans promised that this was a ‘temporary’, ‘tactical’, and ‘transactional’ co-operation with the Syrian Kurds. When Turkey offered military assistance in defeating ISIS, the Americans rejected it. They were apparently in search of a local group inside Syria to partner with. In the end, the US picked PYD/YPG to face the ISIS threat.

Neither temporary nor transactional

Here is another fact: Time proved that the US – PYD partnership was neither ‘temporary’ nor ‘transactional’.

I remember several panel discussions in Washington in the last few years where experts argued how bad of an idea it was to support a terror linked group without giving proper security assurances to Turkey, America’s NATO ally. In other words, the US policy was to dismiss Turkey’s concerns, while pursuing an agenda that was not transparent, working in close co-operation with an armed group inimical to Turkey, operating right across the Syria-Turkey border.

Russian involvement

In times like this, when friends become foes, life has an ironic way of reminding you why you were friends in the first place.

Turkey’s operation into Northeast Syria and the US pulling its forces from the area triggered a set of events that resulted in the Syrian Government and Russia to step in and take control of a number of critical towns located near the Syrian border.

Here is a summary of what is unfolding in Syria and its impact on the US and Turkey:

  • The US policy shift announced suddenly by President Trump had a triple impact. America lost its credibility as a reliable international partner. The Americans are now forced out of their well-entrenched positions in Syria. And, finally Trump, facing strong criticism at home, in an about face resorted to imposing sanctions on its NATO ally Turkey because of the military operation in Syria he seemed to have acquiesced to in the first place.
  • For Turkey, it may not be that easy to succeed in building the ‘peace corridor’ in Northern Syria, following the Russian involvement. What is more dramatic is that Turkey is facing sanctions from the US, even though it was the White House giving the green light to Turkey for its operation into Syria. Furthermore, Ankara is reminded that neither the Arab League nor Putin are dear friends.

As the Turkish operation unfolds, the Syrian government and Russia are reclaiming territory in North Eastern Syria that would be otherwise difficult to reclaim without the failure of the US-Turkey alliance.

Refocusing on the fundamentals

From this point on, Turks and Americans should seriously focus on rebuilding trust and explore ways to work together again as allies. Because what is at stake here is much more than a deal about Syria. It is about a longstanding alliance that spans decades which also defined the reach of western syle democracy in the Middle East.


 Cenk Karatas is a Washington based senior analyst on Turkish political affairs with a background in Turkish and international media, and a Fellow at the     Global Policy Institute. He has been advising on Turkish politics for the leading Japanese daily The Asahi Shimbun for over a decade. As a journalist, he   covered   Turkish politics and regional affairs, reporting from conflict zones including Syrian and Iraqi borders, as well as Kurdish areas.