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Withdrawal from Syria: Grand Accommodation in US-Turkey Relations?

Turkey and the United States were on a collision course in Syria that jeopardized a broader military alliance and political partnership that spans from Europe to Central Asia. The U.S. decision to withdraw from northeast Syria offers a pathway forward for revitalizing this once crucial Cold War alliance.

To deter Turkey from aligning closer with Russia economically and militarily, the U.S. can provide a green light for a future, phased military campaign east of the Euphrates River that takes guidance from the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Such an act contradicts the current policy of the U.S. partnership with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but allegiances are shaky and shift quickly in the SDF-held regions of northeast Syria.

The United States will need a partner on the ground that can sustain itself without long-term U.S. military, diplomatic, and political support. The only option left at this phase in Syria’s civil war is Turkey and its rebel allies.

America’s three objectives in Syria can still be met with a Turkish partner force, namely to keep ISIS down, Iran out, and America in. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s threats have finally been noticed by the White House, which has presented Turkey with an opportunity to show regional leadership and be the principal ground force for the achievement of these objectives.

It is crucial that Turkey handles the Syria portfolio with care, accounting for tribal dynamics, ethnic disputes, and the need for increased stabilization funding and humanitarian assistance. With Turkey managing the situation in Syria, the United States can broaden its operations to defeating ISIS globally.

From Afrin to the Iraqi border, Turkey would be increasingly responsible for overseeing these localized efforts with the support of the coalition. As a result, Turkey’s influence in the Syria end-game would grow, and with more territory held, and leverage at stake would need to rebuff any agreements reached during the Russian and Iranian-backed Astana talks that do not comply with the Geneva peace process.

If Turkey desires to expand its role in overseeing northern Syria, then they will need the support of their Syrian rebel allies. Not only will Turkey have the responsibility of sustaining a moderate rebel force, but they will have to stake out a political position favorable to them; that Geneva talks under the auspices of the United Nations is the pathway forward for peace, not the Astana talks that Turkey has supported.

To maintain the confidence and backing of the United States and the coalition, Turkey will need to embrace Geneva and move further away from Russia and Iran. In return, Erdogan would score a political victory for domestic consumption and be able to claim the YPG (the People’s Protection Units, a mainly-Kurdish militia in Syria) defeated and its regional leadership in the anti-ISIS coalition indisputable.

Though the battle for Hajjin, a town 110 kilometers east of Deir-ez-Zor, has been won thus ending the so-called physical caliphate, ISIS continues to pose a lethal conventional military threat and through their clandestine insurgency efforts could return as an occupying force if a capable counterforce is not on the ground to ensure their enduring defeat.

U.S. military personnel have operated in Syria for nearly four years to defeat ISIS and stabilize liberated territories. The 79-member Global Coalition was instrumental in achieving and now in sustaining these ends. The ground force the coalition heavily relied on to uproot ISIS from the predominately Arab lands of northeast Syria was the Syrian Democratic Forces, the military wing of the Syrian Democratic Council.

Turkey, a founding member in the coalition, has insisted from the beginning that the SDF was an unacceptable solution for defeating ISIS. If the coalition were to recognize this, thus ending a long-standing dispute in Turkey’s favor, President Erdogan should be ready to fight for the CJTF-OIR mission in Syria, and accommodate other key points straining the U.S.-Turkey partnership.

Already some movement on these other points has been made. Turkey has decided to buy Patriot Missiles from the United States. That should put to an end talks for equipping its military with the Russian S-400 system, which is inoperable with NATO weapons systems. Moreover, Turkey should enact a moratorium on the Turkstream natural gas pipeline partnership with Russia and with Western support should double down on the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) which runs through our shared allies, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

These decisions not only stifle Russian entreaties and weaken their oil and gas monopoly over Europe, but it stabilizes the Western-Turkey partnership and could potentially lead to increased foreign investment in the Turkish economy. An International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout could be forthcoming as well, should Turkey desire one.

The United States alliance with the SDF may be coming to an abrupt end after increasingly tense moves by Turkey to gain the attention of the White House. That leaves America with a decision. To either remain in a hostile, downward spiral with Turkey, let it go it alone in northern Syria, and draw increasingly close to Russia, or use this as an opportunity to salvage the relationship while carrying out U.S. objectives against ISIS and Iran.

The political climate between Turkey and the United States has improved, primarily as a result of both the personal relationship between Presidents Erdogan and Donald Trump and the defeat of ISIS in Hajiin. It is time to seriously consider the strategic value of U.S.-Turkish ties and use what leverage we have left in Syria to bolster our ends.

All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Globe Post Turkey.

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