The repeated failure of the peace process in Syria underlines how far apart those involved are on reaching a solution. Turkey has proven particularly ambivalent, focused instead on balancing the fight against ISIS with the suppression of Kurdish elements. Here, Buddhika Jayamaha and U.S. Maj. Jahara Matisek argue that this is by design and reflects Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's domestic political agenda.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of each author and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government. 

The United States will have to carefully calibrate its short and medium-term strategies to avoid being boxed out of Syria. Recently, Turkey entered a tactical alliance of convenience with Russia and reached a tenuous modus vivendi with Iran, beckoning a proxy war in Syria between the U.S. and a NATO ally. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened U.S. troops with an “Ottoman slap” and invaded the Syrian-Kurdish canton of Afrin. Though no U.S. soldiers are in Afrin, U.S.-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) control it. In response, U.S. commanders are staying the course and will continue fighting Islamic State remnants with the help of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SYD), while also conducting post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitating the SYD-controlled parts of Syria. Still, Turkish domestic political logic and regional security strategies mean that the two allies are working at cross-cutting purposes. This is because Turkey sees U.S. actions as a direct threat, while the U.S. sees the fight against the Islamic state as providing a regional and global public good.

The U.S will have to try its best to manage the rift, being mindful that Turkey’s regional security policies are shaped by the two main axes of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) domestic political concerns—namely, its authoritarian, Islamist ideological shift and its consolidation of one-party rule. The danger is that the logical extension of AKP domestic political logic may turn the rift into a reckoning of Turkey making alliances with non-Western partners, that boxes out the U.S. Moreover, the purging of secularists from the Turkish military further enhances this AKP logic of creating a military more aligned with Erdogan’s Islamist-goals for a ‘new’ Turkish state. However, this has depleted the Turkish military which now appears to be struggling in combat operations against Kurdish militias on the ground. We come to these conclusions based on fieldwork conducted in the region, including interviews with Turkish military officers and YPG fighters.

The danger of an ‘end game’ that results in a permanent split between NATO allies in the multifaceted nexus of Kurds-Turks-Americans (and many other armed actors) should be alarming to many. This might explain the highly unusual meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Erdogan that took place on February 15, 2018.

Two Axes: Redefinition and Consolidation

On one axis, the AKP seeks to maintain momentum in its effort to Islamize the Turkish state.  Erdogan’s AKP has made clear that its “vision” runs counter to Western ideals of respecting rule of law and democracy. Indeed, maintaining and acting on the narrative that the West and America are against Turkey is a deliberate part of the AKP narrative.

On the other axis, Erdogan’s strategies vis-à-vis the U.S. and regional security policies are aimed at consolidating the authoritarian shift by outflanking AKP political opponents in Turkey. It is accomplished in unison with Erdogan’s de-professionalization and AKP takeover of Turkey’s military. Along the way, AKP and Erdogan will curry domestic favor by deepening engagements in the Middle East, trying to assert Turkey as a regional power (albeit with a hollowed-out military) and through neo-Ottomanesque ideological projection in rhetoric and culture—as with AKP-funded soap operas that glorify Ottoman sultans.

Erdogan picks fights to reflect this reimagined Turkish identity. This includes angering the EU through derogatory comments, conducting illegal political campaigns in Europe, and blocking a drilling rig in Cypriot waters with the Turkish navy; “allowing” his security detail to assault pro-Kurdish protesters in Washington, D.C.; threatening to cut ties with Israel; siding against the Egyptian military and Saudis by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Libya; and angering the Gulf Cooperation Council by deploying soldiers to Qatar. The AKP’s Islamist ideology necessitates both confrontation with the West and an active role in the Middle East, such as establishing a base in Somalia, signaling deeper ties with Sudan, and even having Turkish intelligence officials ship weapons to an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. These decisions have “blowback” in that it increases Turkey’s isolation. Yet Turkey’s Afrin intervention and growing rift with the West must be understood in light of the AKP’s ideology and power consolidation.

The AKP Long Game

Erdogan and the AKP are sincere Islamists. The AKP wins elections precisely because their Islamist vision captures the dreams, aspirations, and visions of half the Turkish population, known as Black Turks. They are the “real” Turks, because they are “salt of the earth” folks; hence, in Erdogan’s worldview, they are the “true nationalists.” Their identity stands in contrast to the cosmopolitan secular elites in urban areas who emulate the West, known as White Turks. The AKP manipulates these identity dynamics to cement its control over Turkey, ensuring that Black Turks play a bigger role in Turkey’s new Islamist identity.

The AKP is slowly realizing its twin objectives. Redefinition of the Turkish state and its national identity is advanced through the purging of the civil service, educational institutions, and the judiciary. Replacing these institutions with AKP loyalists, facilitates Erdogan’s vision of redefining Turkish nationalism within the “deep state.” A “proud” Turk, always viewed in exclusivist terms, is no longer progressive, modern, or cosmopolitan; EU membership is perceived as antithetical to real Turkish values. Thus, a “real” Turk is both proudly Turkish and Islamist. Creating this new generation of “virtuous” Turks also takes place by eliminating science in schools.

However, re-imagining an Islamist Turkish identity requires an imaginary enemy. Consequently, the ideational underpinning of the Turkish variant of political Islam also carries with it, just as in all other variants of political Islam, anti-Western streaks. But ideas have much more traction when they are acted out. The AKP’s version of political Islam, a Turkish Islamist nationalism, requires Erdogan to play a dual role. Erdogan plays the persecuted victim, under attack from within (by secularists, cosmopolitan elites, NGOs, Kurds, etc.) and from outside (by the EU, U.S., Western regional stooges, etc.). The constant, calculated confrontations in turn keep AKP loyalists in a constant state of mobilization. The AKP portrays talk of human rights, rule of law, and democracy as attempts by European Christians to undermine their reimaging of the real Turkish identity.

Slowly Fracturing U.S. Security Relations

Though rarely reported in the U.S., the American military has long had a special place in the AKP’s narrative. The AKP prevented the U.S. military from using Incirlik Air Base in Adana for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Until the rise of ISIS, Incirlik could not be used to support combat operations (e.g., launching armed aircraft, transporting troops and ammo, etc.) in Iraq and Afghanistan. The AKP asserted from the beginning that a base in Turkey could not be used to kill fellow Muslims—though Turkey finally relented in 2015, permitting U.S. combat operations against the Islamic State. To this day, Turkey prevents Incirlik from being used to directly support U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan, despite Turkey having troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO mission.

When the Syrian civil war began, Erdogan first tried to do what France did in Libya—enlist the Obama Administration to oust Assad and install a new regime. In Syria, this regime would presumably be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood or other Sunni Islamists more in line with AKP ideology and interests. The Islamic State (ISIS) emerged as the U.S was in search of a better response, whereas Turkey tacitly supported the Islamic State by allowing it a rear base.

The AKP permitted an ISIS caliphate that, at its height, controlled a large territory of almost eight million people. In 2014, the Islamic State almost defeated the last Kurdish hold-out in Kobani led by YPG fighters along the Syrian border. Had Kobani fallen, it would have created a contiguous Islamic State inside Syria almost the length of Turkey.

The AKP refused to support the YPG inside Kobani, citing their links with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), painting the YPG, PKK, and ISIS as terrorists. Faced with Turkish intransigence, the U.S. faced real concerns on the ground with the Islamic State advance and the “CNN effect” showing Kurds valiantly fighting for their survival on televisions around the world. The American military eventually intervened on behalf of Kurds in Kobani. Tactical logic and security interests drove the U.S. to make a pragmatic alliance with the YPG—a rare friendly force capable of fighting ISIS. The YPG put Western military aid to good use by expanding Kurdish territorial control inside Syria and creating the autonomous region of Rojava.

At the same time, the AKP lost its parliamentary majority when the predominantly Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey clawed away Kurdish votes that traditionally went to the AKP. The AKP responded to this new political environment by outflanking its opponents—suspending peace talks with the PKK, restarting the civil war, and calling new elections.

Renewing the civil war undermined the budding Kurdish and leftist-liberal Turkish political alliance. It also outflanked the ultra-nationalist parties and the security establishment that always viewed the Kurds as an existential threat. To be anti-AKP was to be unpatriotic. Emergency powers suppressed critics and shuttered opposition newspapers, helping the AKP regain its majority.

In our interviews, YPG commanders and officials do not deny their ideological affinity for the PKK. They are cagey about this open secret, knowing the fine line Americans are walking between “PKK terrorists” and “YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces.” What they insist, in agreement with American policy, is that the YPG will not allow the PKK to operate in their Syrian territory. YPG personnel fully understand that this would shatter their positive relations with the U.S. Nevertheless, the PKK will continue relying on Iraqi bases in the Qandil mountains to orchestrate attacks inside Turkey.

Making matters worse, Erdogan faced a military coup attempt in 2016—or more accurately, given Erdogan’s own authoritarian takeover of Turkish institutions and repression of civil society, a “counter-coup.” Erdogan claimed the coup was hatched by his former partner, Fethullah Gulen, with the complicity of the CIA and U.S. military. It was not a whispered conspiracy theory, but one blasted by Erdogan and the AKP as a fact. The U.S. was portrayed as a real threat to Turkey. This was supported by polls showing a sizable number of Turks considered America a greater threat than ISIS. Anti-American conspiracy theories have graduated into mainstream political discourse and are reified in talk shows and AKP-affiliated newspapers. The coup attempt gave the AKP the political cover to purge the military and bureaucracy of White Turks, and jail opposing politicians, activists and journalists not already behind bars.

Some Turkish military officers we interviewed claim that the coup against Erdogan was staged. Others believe that there was some conspiracy, but dismiss the AKP’s version of it. One point of agreement is that the coup attempt led to the purge of a substantial number of personnel in the Turkish armed forces, allowing the AKP to pack it with loyalists who believe in its Islamist vision for Turkey. Interviewees point to Erdogan forcing the recruitment of graduates from religious schools in hopes of converting his secular military into a pious Islamist force. These actions are supported by Erdogan’s decision to end participation in the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT) program in Texas. Since 1981, Turkey had participated in ENJJPT (essentially free of charge), where Turkish instructor pilots and students worked and trained alongside other NATO pilots.

Erdogan’s decision to remove secularists from his armed forces indicates that he may have realized the inherent dangers involved with remaking Turkey. There are two reasons to believe this. First, Erdogan’s mentor, Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, was removed by military coup in 1997 due to his Islamist vision for Turkey. Second, Erdogan appears to have learned from the mistakes of Egypt’s short-lived Muslim Brotherhood presidency of Mohamed Morsi. Morsi tried to implement political Islam against the wishes of his secular Egyptian army, which overthrew him in 2013. Thus, Erdogan needed to “transform” the secular Ataturk army, so that it would remain loyal to him and the AKP vision for a ‘new’ Turkish state.

In the meantime, Russia’s late 2015 intervention quickly transformed the Syrian civil war. Turkey’s preferred outcome of a Sunni Islamist victory was blown away by Russian air power, which shifted the military balance in favor of Assad and Iran. Erdogan pulled back his strategic ambitions, refocusing on denying the PKK a secure rear area in Syria and capturing the associated internal political benefits of fighting Kurds. The AKP deployed Turkish troops into Syria in 2017 to prevent the Kurds in Qamishli (northeastern Syria) from linking up their territory with the Kurds in Afrin.

Turkey also created its own Sunni Islamist militia, carving out a buffer zone where Turkish troops are likely to stay long-term. Such direct control guarantees that Turkey will play a role in shaping a Syrian peace deal. Turkish military officials we interviewed, add that the operations in Syria and the intensified PKK conflict in southeastern Turkey keeps the Turkish military “on its toes,” and thus, Erdogan “safe.”

With the American military operating in Syrian Kurdish areas, Erdogan audaciously upped the ante. He bought one of the most advanced Russian air defense systems, the S-400, which lacks interoperability with U.S. and NATO systems. The Turkish government boasted of the S-400’s capacity to shoot down U.S. aircraft. Turkey is scheduled to receive stealthy F-35s in 2019. But it is highly unlikely that NATO would take the risk of delivering such technology to an “ally” that behaves with increasing hostility and may even share F-35 technical data with Russia.

If and when Russian military advisors arrive in Turkey to help establish S-400 operations, they will likely fine tune their S-400 algorithms to “sniff out” F-35 radar cross-sections, compromising NATO stealth technology. Such actions will dovetail with the AKP’s domestic narratives of standing up to a U.S. that supported a coup against Erdogan and allied with Kurdish “terrorists.” Turkish military operations in Afrin over the last four weeks are shaped by the same AKP ideology: Domestic political concerns and Kurdish security threats. Turkey and the U.S. are locked in a confrontation, which seems increasingly likely to rupture.

A Rift by Design?     

The U.S. has no plans of walking away from the only significant military gains it has achieved in the Middle East in recent years. It will not hand over liberated Syrian territory to Iranian or Turkish proxies. Further, America must stay the course, if it is to influence any eventual peace agreement in the Syrian war and counter Iranian and Sunni jihadist threats.

American troops we interviewed in Kurdistan hold the YPG in very high regard. But the American-Kurdish alliance runs straight into Erdogan’s ideological and political cross hairs. By allying with the Kurds, the U.S. facilitates the rhetoric inside Turkey about the U.S. being a threat, not only to Erdogan’s Islamist vision, but also to Turkey’s territorial integrity.

Erdogan’s Afrin offensive broadens the rift that began when the domestic logic of the AKP’s regional security policies began working in opposition to American national interests. With Operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch, Turkey has drawn its own “red line” about U.S. strategy. By creating new Syrian war dynamics, Erdogan intends to play a role in any comprehensive agreement that reshapes power-sharing in Syria. Ostensibly, it is a regional win for Erdogan at the expense of the U.S.

Four weeks into the fighting, however, the YPG has given Turkey more of a fight than anticipated. This should not be surprising given that the Turkish military purge has “sapped morale” and “undermined competence.”

At present, it seems unthinkable that Erdogan would directly engage American ground forces or that he would court expulsion from NATO. That would be too significant of denouement. Worse yet, it would likely make it harder for the AKP to blame the West for Turkey’s problems, which is essential to their ideational project and domestic political strategy. However, it is worrisome that Turkey might have crossed a “red line” within the NATO alliance, as there are allegations that the Turkish army may have fired artillery shells with chemical weapons (chlorine gas) into Afrin.

Consistent AKP actions leave little doubt that Turkey is shifting away from Europe and the U.S. The true test of a reckoning with the U.S. and NATO will be whether Erdogan follows through on his “tough talk.” It will become clear shortly if Erdogan accepts delivery of Russian S-400s and deploys them in support of a Syrian no-fly zone, allowing Turkish proxies to roam. This would fundamentally undermine U.S. assumptions of regional security, and possibly lead to a NATO “Turkexit.” Importantly, it will also mark the beginning of a new regional reality: A Turkey tactically allied with Russia and a U.S. increasingly boxed out of the region, altogether.

Buddhika Jayamaha is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Northwestern University. Since 2005, he has conducted extensive fieldwork in the Middle East and Africa about dynamics of rebel cohesion in collapsed states. Buddhika has published pieces about conflict in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, in the New York Times, CTC Sentinel, and Small Wars Journal. He is a former sergeant and veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division, U.S. Army, and authored Nightcap at Dawn: American Soldiers' Counterinsurgency in Iraq.

Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek is an officer in the U.S. military and a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Northwestern University. He has conducted field research in the Middle East and Africa on the topic of creating effective militaries in weak states. FRANKY is currently a contributing editor at Over the Horizon: Multi-Domain Operations & Strategies and has published in Defense One, Strategy Bridge, Small Wars Journal, Modern War Institute, and the Journal of Strategic Security.