The United States has not been clear about its exit plan in Syria, and will still need boots on the ground after ISIS has morphed into a nonstate actor. Gen. Raymond Thomas, commander of United States Special Operations Command, said that it would be advantageous for the coalition to stay in Syria and support the Syrian Democratic Forces as long as there “is a CT [counter-terrorism] threat to deal with”—suggesting that the United States will remain there for some time to come.
Likewise, in an interview for the pro-government Daily Sabah, which had undertones of being a prepared interview with the intent of sending a signal to the United States amongst others, retired Lt. Gen. Ismail Hakki Pekin almost admitted Turkey’s acknowledgement of Syrian-Kurdish autonomy east of the Euphrates. He said that the United States’ “only purpose is to create a Kurdish region northeast of the Euphrates. They are working toward this goal and don’t want Turkey to intercept their efforts there.”
Although no one can know the end-game of the Syrian Civil War, there are several factors that point towards the possibility of Syrian-Kurdish autonomy in Northern Syria. And while the Turkish state may have acknowledged this fact, it is highly unlikely that Ankara will refrain from attempting to distort or challenge any type of Kurdish autonomy—especially due to the links between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the PKK, and the growing interconnectedness of the Syrian and Turkish Kurds. Exploring the various policy options Turkey may consider—and has at its disposal—is therefore instrumental in understanding what impact Syrian-Kurdish autonomy can have for Turkey, the region and the already fragile relationship between Turkey and the West.
Turkey’s most immediate and potent nonmilitary response to any settlement where it feels threatened by Syrian-Kurdish autonomy would be to keep its border with Rojava shut off. The effect of the economic blockade would be contingent on whether the Syrian-regime would join in on the isolation or not.
The first scenario is autonomy established under the imagined American-patronage, and without Syrian government consent, an economic blockade would be far more effective. Rojava would turn into a landlocked political-entity bordered by hostile countries and state-like entities, Turkey to the North, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to the East and the Syrian regime to the South and West, closing off any potential trade routes and connections to global markets, thus deepening its dependence on American patronage and also hindering any serious, sustainable development of the region.
However in the second scenario, without the isolation of the Syrian regime, the Kurds of Northern Syria would be given free passage through a federal Syria, access to a larger, domestic market, neighboring countries and connected to the global economy through the ports of the Syrian west coast. This scenario would also mean a far speedier recovery for Rojava, economic integration into Syria and provide a sustainable economic model for Rojava to become a leading economic hub in the country, catering to a domestic and war-torn economy—even under a Turkish blockade.
Rojava allegedly accounted for 55 percent of the Syrian GDP in mid-2016, and due to the fact that the region has seen less destruction than most other parts of Syria, its infrastructure and ability to produce and export remains intact. The region has in other words become an economic beacon of Syria, and would be able to benefit from its pole position in a post-conflict scenario. Jazira Canton is nicknamed the “breadbasket of Syria” producing almost one fifth of the country’s grain output and is in control of several of the country’s oilfields, including the major center of oil production: Rmelan. Likewise, Afrin has become the country’s new industrial powerhouse after many businesses migrated there from the destruction in Aleppo. It is home to some four hundred textile workshops with about seventeen thousand employees that supply all of Syria with textiles. Therefore, it is safe to say that in order for a Turkish blockade of Rojava to cause a serious blow to Rojava’s economy, it requires regime cooperation.
Also, a joint KRG-Turkey blockade of Rojava, with or without the Syrian regime, could lead Turkey to accept KRG’s desire for independence, as a way for Turkey to garner legitimacy, uphold intra-Kurdish disunity and tie the KRG to Ankara—hastening the Iraqi-Kurdish independence in the process.
The usage of Incirlik by the Combined Joint Task Force, or CJTF, was a major point of contention and suspicion between Turkey and its NATO-allies on Ankara’s stance in the early stages of the fight against ISIS. And in no way by coincidence did the opening of the base take place the day before Turkey’s low-intense domestic civil war with the PKK re-erupted. Ankara hoped to receive American concessions on its support for the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, and potentially establish a no-fly zone in Northern Syria. Incirlik once again highlights the increasing cross-border interconnectedness of the Syrian and Turkish Kurds’ struggle for autonomy, and its opening was directly linked to Turkey’s attempt at hindering both. Therefore, Turkey closing Incirlik (and Diyarbakir) air base for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve related campaigns remains a very real policy option for Turkey, should it feel bypassed in any settlement dealing with Syrian-Kurdish autonomy. For the sake of clarity, there is an obvious limit to how much maneuverability Turkey has due to its responsibilities as a NATO-member, and closing use of Incirlik airbase, would not affect the fifty nuclear warheads currently stationed at the base.
However, although blocking the use of Incirlik would indeed be a logistical minus, it would not mean a complete end what so ever to the American capacity of carrying out raids. When the airbase opened Gen. Joseph Votel, the former head of U.S. Special Operations Command and current commander of U.S. Central Command, said that “it provides additional flexibility and agility in addressing this enemy ISIL that we’re dealing with in Iraq and in Syria,” implying that Incirlik offers the coalition convenience but is not a necessity. And according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, there are several bases in the region that “could play a similar role with only an incremental increase in cost and inconvenience,” effectively underlining the fact that the strategic importance of Incirlik is generally overstressed. Also when the conflict has settled down and ISIS defeated, the same capacity and demand for extensive use of air force will not be needed. In short, Turkey would only sour its already fragile relationship with the West in any such move.
Disrupting any process of normalization in Rojava
The end of the Syrian Civil War is not expected by anyone to usher in a new era of prosperity and harmony by itself. According to a report from the European Commision “the economic and human development of Syria has been reversed by 40 years,” and it is unclear who or what is going to help rebuild the collapsed economy of Syria. In any case, establishing confidence and ensuring stability within Syria is going to be absolutely key to getting the country back on its feet. And it is very likely that Turkey will attempt to distort any such development in the Rojava-region.
For Turkey, making sure that a climate of fear and insecurity remains in Rojava would be a way of containing an economy that Turkey sees as financing a domestic insurgence. This could be done through sporadic bombings based on either minor provocations or false allegations of Kurdish aggression, thereby keeping the situation from normalizing and hindering any potential (scarce) capital and tourism from flowing to the region. Additionally, Turkey could establish a network of sleeper cells within Rojava consisting of anti-Kurdish rebel factions sponsored by Turkey during the civil war. These sleeper cells could carry out attacks within the region, thereby maintaining violence that is not monopolized, undermining Kurdish federal state authority and scaring away potential capital inflows. In all these examples there is a very real risk of collateral damage on U.S. equipment or personnel.
Lastly, the example of the state-run news agency of the Turkish government, Anadolu Agency, revealing American positions within Syria in detail, is a tendency that could continue as Turkey finds itself more at odds with American policies in Syria and as a form of subtle retaliation.
However, the risk of creating more friction in Turkey’s already tense relationship with the West would in this scenario be very real. Exposing sensitive details or potentially killing American servicemen could trigger a serious response from any influenced parties. It could potentially even be the last straw on top of Turkey’s S400-missile deal, Germany-row, Washington-bodyguard incident, the Turkish-Dutch Tulip Crisis, Erdogan’s nazi remarks on the EU and a line of other West-Turkey political scandals.
If Rojava carves out a place for itself in a post-conflict settlement, the immediate Turkish reactions will aim at creating more instability, uphold violence and potentially create an unsustainable and American-dependent governance system that is isolated from the outside world. Whether it will succeed at these aims or not remain contingent on other actors, and it also comes with the risk of damaging Ankara’s already fragile relationship with the West.