Yesterday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared the beginning of a military operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern and eastern Syria, creating a major test for President Trump's new Syria team. The team, led by veteran diplomat Ambassador James Jeffrey, is charged with achieving a U.S.-Turkish deal in Syria that both supports post-ISIS stability-building through the SDF and assuages Turkey's concerns about the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) - which Turkey accuses the SDF of being tied to – from building a safe haven to launch attacks from Syria on Turkey.
Erdogan's announcement, following just days after Ambassador Jeffrey visited Turkey, is a slap in the face to American efforts to find a win-win solution to the tensions between its NATO ally Turkey, and the SDF, which is the closest U.S. partner in Syria and the most effective local proxy force the U.S. has built in the modern era. The American effort under Jeffrey has focused on carefully and correctly seeking to build a cautious but irreversible process of power-sharing between the SDF and Turkish-backed Syrians in disputed, post-ISIS areas of great interest to Turkey, such as Manbij.
Over the last year, President Erdogan has amped up his rhetoric around creating a "safe zone" in the areas east of the Euphrates along the Syrian-Turkish border. If he acted on his threats, Erdogan would likely collapse the SDF and provide a life-saving boon to ISIS, which would in turn be a threat to the Trump administration's Syria policy. Erdogan's statement yesterday, and the reported buildup of military forces on the Turkish side of the border, is a dangerous escalation. The Trump administration should respond decisively to Turkey and meet Erdogan's threat with strong resolve in support of the SDF and its continued presence in the areas east of the Euphrates. American forces should conduct joint patrols with SDF forces in the areas east of the Euphrates as sign of support for the SDF, and warn Turkey that threats against American and Coalition forces operating with the SDF could lead to the use of lethal force to protect them. The Trump administration should also make clear to Turkey that there will be no premature withdrawal of SDF forces from any area of Syria until the counter-ISIS campaign is concluded in eastern Syria and a successful test model for power-sharing has been achieved in Manbij.
Nicholas A. Heras is a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), working in the Middle East Security Program.
To request an interview with Heras, contact Cole Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org.