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The vital alliances between Turkey, the U.S., and NATO demand sharper and more enduring thought and attention, particularly given the dynamic changes to the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. Turkey’s essential place as a NATO member and key bilateral U.S. ally make Turkey an indispensable ally and nothing on the geopolitical horizon suggests a variation.
Disagreements over the extradition of the radical cleric and mastermind of the attempted 2016 coup d'état in Turkey, Fethullah Gülen, notwithstanding, Turkey’s current geopolitical profile vis a vis the U.S. and NATO is disputed by few. However, there exists the U.S.’s problematic relationship with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). An offshoot of the notorious terrorist organization, PKK, responsible for the deaths of thousands of Turkish civilians, the YPG is also largely considered a terrorist group. Despite the YPG’s assistance to the U.S. military in Syria, American ties with the YPG are thankfully not set in stone.
In reality, the U.S.’s true ally in Syria is Turkey. Thus, the U.S. currently stresses Washington’s commitment to rebuilding trust with its longstanding NATO ally despite any bilateral disagreements. A policy began under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and continues under Mike Pompeo: Washington does not use the word “alliance” or “ally” in reference to YPG. The policy continues to be that America and Turkey have a long-term, enduring, historic alliance and partnership with Turkey and that is not going to change.
The United States has made it clear from the outset that military cooperation with YPG is a transactional, temporary, tactical arrangement, aimed entirely at fighting Daesh (ISIS). Once Daesh is defeated, the ties are broken: There are no plans for an enduring military relationship with YPG and definitely no plans for a political relationship with the Democratic Union Party (PYD). As such, at senior levels, the relationship between Washington and Ankara, the capital of Turkey, remains productive in terms of a joint American-Turkish mechanism to solve issues.
Commencing in January, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch to clear the YPG and Daesh from Afrin in northwestern Syria. Turkey’s military operations in Syria have been fully professional, unlike Russia’s heavy-handed strategy to level entire blocks, along with aiding and abetting Assad’s use of violence and toxic chemicals. In Afrin, the Turkish military was welcomed, as they provided food, medical aid, and security to the aggrieved populace.
In addition to a show of significant operational capability and professionalism, Ankara also successfully entered Afrin to prevent the YPG terror group from entrenching itself on its immediate border, the first time modern Turkey has been called upon to repel borders. Operation Olive Branch as a military operation is a positive campaign. Some opined that the Turks would hurt the people of Afrin and that it was a land grab and so on. In the end, however, the Turkish military brought what was promised. Turkey even trained Afrin’s police force for constabulary responsibilities in order to bring local law and order, an excellent showing of security sector capacity building.
Harsh words have been exchanged between Washington and Ankara related to Syria. Allies do often have different outlooks on fluid and dangerous situations and, certainly, Syria is one of the most volatile today.
Nevertheless, NATO-Turkish relations remain strong with a high amount of praise for Ankara’s operations in Syria. NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg praised Turkey's “transparency” in its Afrin operations. Stoltenberg said Turkey is helping the NATO alliance despite facing serious security challenges as “No other NATO ally has suffered as many terrorist attacks as Turkey” and “Turkey plays a key role in the alliance, contributing to NATO operations to fight Islamic State.” These words of support from the NATO chief need to be seen in their own unique light of the continuing security relationship between Brussels and Ankara.
The U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, stated “We are working with Turkey to try — first of all — to assure Turkey that we are doing nothing that would be with a terrorist organization and secondly to assure Turkey that they are our allies. We have no other reason to be in Afrin or anywhere else other than fight [ISIS].” She went on to show that ongoing events are not meant to have a long-lasting impact on the larger NATO-Turkish relationship. The main focus is to fight against ISIS as “the sole reason” for U.S. military operations in Syria with absolutely no change in any borders.
Sacrificing the U.S.-Turkey-NATO bond in favor of the YPG, or any other, is not a consideration and the constant speculation related to it from armchair commentators is not healthy and detracts from the bigger picture — Turkey’s NATO obligations and those of the U.S. in return trump disagreements and the larger strategic picture.