Warming US-Turkey relations bring new hope to Syria

Secretary of State Blinken will host Foreign Minister Fidan on 7 March in Washington with the Gaza war at the top of the agenda, but the talks will resonate in Damascus

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan at the State Department headquarters in Washington, March 8, 2024.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan at the State Department headquarters in Washington, March 8, 2024.

Warming US-Turkey relations bring new hope to Syria

Relations between Turkey and the United States are improving, with a series of high-level talks between officials highlighting what could be a significant shift in diplomacy.

This week, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan will keep the trend on track, travelling to Washington on 7 March at the invitation of Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The two top diplomats will meet within the Strategic Mechanism Dialogue framework, established in October 2021 between Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Joe Biden.

The meeting follows a trip from the chief of the Turkish Intelligence Agency, Ibrahim Kalin, to the US as part of a recent series of high-level, face-to-face and telephone contact between the two countries.

Fidan said at the closing session of the Antalya Diplomacy Forum last weekend that he and his US counterpart will take stock of the relations between the two countries on a wide range of issues.

Return to pragmatism

Gaza will top the agenda. Both sides are already very involved and have common concerns, but their policies on the issue are very different. This has strained relations between the NATO allies, limiting bilateral cooperation.

But they share a range of common interests at a time of wider geopolitical turmoil, including the situations in Gaza, Ukraine, and especially Syria.

The recent US and Western perception of Turkey is of an ally that has been drifting away. And Turkey has been frustrated with them for what it sees as a lack of support for its fight against terrorism. Overall, there has been a mutual erosion of trust.

That now seems to be changing as a pragmatic approach to the current geopolitical turmoil is starting to eclipse recent tensions.

In the last couple of years, Erdoğan has opted to improve political relations with the US and the West, as well as others in the Middle East.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) receiving his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the presidential hall at Cairo International Airport on February 14, 2024.

Read more: Erdogan in Cairo: A new dawn for Egypt-Turkey ties?

The policy shift has also come as Turkey grapples with economic challenges. The country needs foreign investment and seeks to improve relations to appeal to international capital.

Tensions and hope

Turkey’s long-awaited approval of Sweden’s bid to join NATO opened the way for relations with the US to improve.

Read more: Will Turkey be rewarded for approving Sweden's NATO bid?

But there are still several problems to deal with—some of the most important ones being linked to Syria. The fresh diplomacy stokes hope they will be addressed.

The US and Turkey back opposing forces in Syria. The country is dominated by fierce factional competition for power, with terror organisations also present, while foreign and domestic militias remain on its soil.

Open war may have ended—at least for now—but the crisis in Syria is by no means over. Conditions are highly complex on the ground, and the humanitarian crisis has exponentially worsened.

President Bashar al-Assad remains in power but controls only around 68% of Syria, with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and People's Protection Units (YPG) in control of northwest Syria and east of the Euphrates.

On their part, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) controls Idlib, and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition groups dominate the northeast areas of the country.

Read more: How Syria's vast militia network is eroding state sovereignty

Economic and humanitarian conditions are dire, making the country unsafe and preventing the return of around 7 million Syrians who fled abroad to escape the war and its hardships.

Two major issues for Turkey over Syria are security and the return of Syrians back home. Turkey still hosts around 3.6 million Syrians.

Among the US priorities for Syria are concerns over the possibility of an Islamic State (IS) resurgence, as well as the presence of Iran, its proxies, and Russia.

A pragmatic approach to current geopolitical turmoil is starting to eclipse recent tensions.

US support for SDF

CENTCOM —US Central Command— has been leading the anti-IS effort in the region, with around 800 American soldiers on the ground in Syria alongside its local partners, the SDF and YPG. Along with the PKK, this collection of groups highlights how complex the picture is in Turkey.

YPG was established during the civil war in northern Syria by Kurds from Syria and Turkey. The US has recognised it as its local partner in the fight against IS.

However, this ruffled Turkey's feathers as it views both the YPG and the PKK as terrorist groups. The PKK is designated as such by the US, the European Union and the United Kingdom.

However, the US and other Western nations argue that the PKK and YPG are different. The YPG and SDF are not on the list of terror organisations.

These organisations can be likened to Russian dolls, where smaller figures are contained within larger ones. In Syria,  the bigger doll is the SDF. Inside of that is YPG, and inside YPG is PKK. 

A former CENTCOM commander revealed in a public interview that to defuse Turkish anger—and on US advice—the YPG brought in some Arab, Assyrian and other ethnic/religious elements and announced the establishment of SDF.

Nonetheless, the name change is mainly cosmetic, as YPG forms the backbone of the SDF. 

The YPG receives weapons and equipment, as well as training, from the US and some other Western countries. It has sought legitimacy from its role in fighting IS. In parallel, it follows its own agenda of ensuring a state-like structure in northeast Syria.

The YPG finances a good part of its military activities and civil administration through the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), with revenues from the oil fields under its control.

Before the war, Syria's oil production was around 380,000 barrels per day (bpd).

A worker at a primitive oil refinery poses for a picture at the facility in the town of al-Qahtaniya in Syria's Kurdish-controlled northeastern Hasakah province, near the border with Turkey, on November 15, 2021.

The YPG now produces around 70,000 bpd and is said to make around $1.5bn in revenue by selling oil illegally and under market prices to northern Iraq, the al-Assad regime and opposition groups in northwest Syria.

This may not be significant compared to the revenues of the oil-producing countries in the region, but it is lucrative for the organisation. The flow of money provides finance for a range of armed groups, while the illegal oil trade also gives al-Assad an income.

Questions remain over how effective the YPG's role in fighting IS has been in keeping the group down. Its claim that it is the only force doing so is also misleading.

Turkey has long been fighting IS. And, on their part, Iran, its proxies, and groups such as al-Qaeda and HTS have also been involved in the campaign against this common enemy. Regardless of what the West thinks of some of these groups, its interests are aligned with them in this fight, not just the YPG.

IS camps

One of the main responsibilities of the YPG is to control and guard camps such as Al Hol, where IS militants and families are held. Corruption and mismanagement on the part of YPG  in these camps is known to be widespread.

People who are supposed to remain in camps until their countries of origin take them back frequently go in and out of the camps without hindrance.

Another striking example was the recent discovery of a Yazidi woman in a camp who was held there as a sex slave for the last six years.

The YPG is also probably exaggerating the scale of the current threat posed by IS.

There are plenty of other threats and risk factors, from the proxy war between the US and Iran to conflicts between Arab tribes and the YPG, the situation in Idlib and the security situation in northwest Syria. Any of them could prove to be even more problematic in terms of their implications.

A hasty US withdrawal from Syria would help Iran and Russia strengthen their grip in the region.

The Trump factor

The future in Syria looks uncertain on many fronts, including the question of whether the US is going to withdraw its troops soon. Some are certain that this will happen if Donald Trump wins the upcoming presidential election.

Read more: Trump might win, and US foreign policy will likely change

Anything seems possible with Trump. But a hasty US withdrawal would have several implications, including helping Iran and Russia strengthen their grip in the region.

The US and Turkish foreign ministers may prove capable of finding ways toward a political solution, easing Syria's humanitarian crisis, and rebuilding Syria.

But the extent to which they could cooperate will depend on how much flexibility they are willing to show—especially on the role and place of the YPG in the coming days.

Turkey's political headroom over this issue seems narrow under the present circumstances. 

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