US and Turkey clash over Syria strategy, after years of seeing eye to eye

Turkey US United States flags
Ed Sykes

After years of seeing eye to eye on Syria, the disagreements between the US and Turkey are reaching fever pitch. And this could derail the fight against Daesh (Isis/Isil).

There are currently immense tensions between Turkey and the US. Reuters describes how the two NATO members are on a “collision course” over their strategies in Syria. Turkey, for example, wants to push back against the secular Kurdish-led forces of the YPG. But the US apparently wants to focus on the fight against Daesh, in which the YPG are the most effective local fighters.

Turkey makes its intentions clear

On 2 March, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said:

Our demand from the U.S. and its new administration is to have the YPG leave Manbij as soon as possible… We have said that we would strike if the YPG fails to withdraw.

The YPG liberated the Syrian city of Manbij from Daesh in August 2016.

Also on 2 March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted:

Turkey’s new target in Syria is Manbij.

And Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said:

Certain forces are trying to gain ground in Syria through groups like the YPG… Before our friends and allies do something, they should think not once, but ten times over. They have to decide on who they will move forward with; it’s either Turkey or the terrorist organisations [i.e. the YPG].

In other words, Turkey’s focus is not the fight against Daesh. It’s the fight against the local secular forces which have been pushing Daesh back for years.

The US sticks up for the YPG

US Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, who commands the Combined Joint Task Force against Daesh, insisted on 1 March:

Of those YPG fighters, I’ve talked to their leaders and we’ve watched them operate and they continually reassure us that they have no desire to attack Turkey, that they are not a threat to Turkey, in fact that they desire to have a good working relationship with Turkey… I have seen absolutely zero evidence that they have been a threat to, or have supported any attacks on, Turkey from Northern Syria over the last two years.

Pro-government Turkish daily Yenisafak, however, has argued that Turkey will use the Incirlik Airbase as a way to stop the US from backing the YPG, saying:

Turkey is prepared for possible scenarios with the YPG. Considering the logistical contribution to US air operations, the utilisation permit of Incirlik Airbase is an important leverage to convince the US against working with the YPG.


We could go into great detail on this, but the Syrian storyline should be very clear to most readers by now.

  1. Very real frustrations with the Assad regime in Syria quickly escalated into civil war in 2011. In part due to the interference of Assad’s regional and international foes (Turkey included), but also because of the regime’s own authoritarian response to protests.
  2. Western hopes of getting rid of Assad, however, quickly turned into frustration, as the Syrian government dug in and the anti-Assad opposition (sponsored by Turkey and other Western allies) became dominated by Daesh and other jihadi forces.
  3. The increasingly global profile of Daesh became a PR nightmare for the West. And deposing Assad became less of a priority. Fighting back against the terror group soon became the (stated) focus of Western intervention in Syria.
  4. The most effective ground forces in the fight against Daesh, in northern Syria at least, were the YPG forces of Rojava. Western allies in the region had isolated these forces for years, but they gained international media attention because of their resistance to Daesh. The US soon decided to give them limited strategic support. And it quickly realised that they could play a leading role in defeating Daesh.
  5. Turkey, meanwhile, was falling further into authoritarianism itself. And its regime was becoming increasingly frustrated with YPG-led successes (which it feared would boost the pro-democracy cause in Turkey), along with its own failing efforts to oust Assad. As a result, Turkey invaded Syria in late August 2016. Its aim was to keep the fight for a Turkish-style system in Syria alive; and to contain the Kurdish-inspired democratic system developing in Rojava.
  6. Turkish opposition to the YPG has seen growing tensions with the US ever since, however, with the superpower increasingly seeing the Kurdish-led forces as the best way to defeat Daesh.

This is the clash that Syria is now facing. And if the Trump Administration picks Turkey over Kurdish-led forces, it could doom Syria to even further chaos in the future.

Get Involved!

– Read more Canary articles on Turkey, Syria and Rojava. See more international reporting from us at The Canary Global.

– Write to Theresa May and your MP. Ask them to urge Turkey to resume peace talks with its internal opponents; and to release all political prisoners.

– Join at least 400,000 Brits who have already cancelled holidays in Turkey. Support the boycott campaign here.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

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