By Caysie Myers
The evolving Syrian civil war has stimulated a crisis in U.S.-Turkey relations. Tensions grow ever more strained with the news of Turkey’s raid on the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, having allegedly killed 200 YPG fighters late last night.
Turkey’s recent attack will likely lead to a greater strain on relations, particularly after the leaked documents indicated Washington’s continuing support for the YPG due to their crucial role in the battle against ISIS.
During the second presidential debate on October 9, the candidates discussed their policies on Syria, with Hillary Clinton voicing her plan to arm the Kurds in the fight against ISIS. Secretary Clinton stated that the “Kurds have been our best partners in Syria, as well as Iraq,”. But this partnership comes at a cost, one too high for the U.S. to ignore.
To Turkey, arming the YPG is equivalent to arming terrorists. The YPG is seen as an offshoot of the PKK, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, declared a terrorist organization by Turkey and the U.S. Defeating ISIS remains the priority, but the question is whether arming the YPG in Syria will pay off in the battle, or simply serve to further complicate Washington’s relations with Ankara.
The foreign policy conundrum of Syria alone is fractioned into many parts. In 2011, as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton gave Bashar al-Assad the “benefit of the doubt,” expecting him to take proper action against the violence and protests tearing through the country. It has been a long, grueling five years in Syria since the full break out of civil war, and the equation has only gotten more muddled.
When no-fly zones could have been established, they were not; as a result, Russia entered into the fray in support of Assad. Establishing a no-fly zone could be disastrous in the current context. Continuous efforts by the U.S. to establish ceasefires with Russia have fallen flat, except for the one-week ceasefire that ended catastrophically in the destruction of a humanitarian aid convoy.
After failing to secure another pause in the fighting, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry convened talks earlier this month in Lausanne, Switzerland, with eight regional foreign ministers in attendance, including Turkey and Russia, but with little result.
To be blunt, U.S. foreign policy in Syria under the Obama Administration has left much to be desired, for which Hillary Clinton must shoulder her share of the blame. And should she become the next president, she will need to learn from her mistakes.
The U.S. cannot solve the conflict between the regime and the Free Syrian Army, nor should it try to do so by getting involved on the ground. But there is more a new American administration could do to alleviate the humanitarian cost of the conflict, most of all by working closely with Turkey and other regional partners to seriously tackle the refugee crisis.
But the question of combating ISIS will continue to complicate any efforts at building international cooperation. A recent leak of Secretary Clinton’s e-mails show she wanted to provide the YPG with heavy weaponry in Syria and Iraq as early as 2014.
The Obama Administration has so far been careful to avoid doing so, as per an agreement with Turkey. If these statements offer an indication of Hillary Clinton’s strategy for fighting ISIS, it will do little for U.S.-Turkey relations.
Defeating ISIS will always be the priority, but if Secretary Clinton is to maintain regional relationships, she will be forced to rethink her policies. Turkey views both ISIS and the YPG as threats to its national security, and arming the Kurdish group would enflame regional tensions; contributing to, rather than decreasing, the instability in Syria.
Turkey and the U.S. have long been close allies, but this is at risk if their regional interests continue to diverge. President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Yıldırım have been openly and vocally critical of the U.S.’s support for the YPG in Syria, but this has not stopped Secretary Clinton from stating that there is a lot of “important planning going on” to potentially include the YPG in a coalition to defeat ISIS.
The Turkish President chastised Clinton by asking, “aren’t you aware that you caused the death of 600,000 people through the weapons you provided? Where is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Where is law? Where is the importance of human life?”
Reluctance to take Turkey’s concerns into account led President Erdoğan to call Secretary Clinton’s plan to arm the YPG “a very unfortunate statement,” that showed “political inexperience,” and leaves the U.S. open to the accusation of acting purely in its own self interest, with little regard for the consequences.
Secretary Clinton undeniably has a plethora of political experience, but such criticism is likely to damage her relationship with Turkey before she has even has the chance to take office. Further, instead of firing off insults and pursuing petty retaliations against the U.S, Turkey must also choose a different approach. If progress is to be made, both countries need to negotiate and re-evaluate their policies, particularly as the battle dramatically escalates in Iraq and northern Syria, and Washington and Ankara are dragged into conflict with one another.