Has Putin Set Up a Military Clash Between the US and Turkey?

This article was first published on the Atlantic Council site.

The decision of Turkey to mount air and ground operations in the Afrin district of northwestern Syria entails dangers that transcend even the potentially dire consequences for civilians of yet another Syrian combat zone swallowing lives and property.

Despite the flamboyant anti-Turkish threats of its Syrian client, Russia has gingerly stepped aside in this corner of Aleppo Province, moving its ground forces and vacating the airspace to accommodate the Turkish operation.

For the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, nothing—not even the full political ascendancy of Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad—would top Turkey and the United States coming to military blows over Syria.

Afrin is geographically distinct from that part of Syria where the battle against ISIS has been fought. East of the Euphrates River, the Kurdish YPG—which is the Turkish target in Afrin—is a major element of the anti-ISIS coalition.

In the Afrin district, there is no ISIS presence. Therefore, YPG forces in that area are not, strictly speaking, part of the anti-ISIS coalition. They are there to garrison the westernmost part of the Syrian border strip with Turkey, a narrow strand of territory which they wish to convert into an autonomous Syrian Kurdish zone.

GettyImages-910083302 A man stands amidst debris in the Syrian Kurdish town of Jandairis in the northern Afrin district, on January 24, 2018. Turkish forces and allied Syrian rebels are waging an offensive against Afrin, an enclave in northern Syria controlled by Kurdish militia. Jandairis, a town in the district's southwestern corner, has been heavily targeted by Turkish air strikes and rockets as it sits close to the border and near a front line with pro-Ankara rebels. AHMAD SHAFIA BILAL/AFP/Getty

There is no inclination in Ankara or Washington for bilateral matters to deteriorate to the point of blows. It may well be that Turkey sees the Afrin (“Olive Branch”) operation as a box-checking exercise: hammer the Syrian Kurdish affiliate of the PKK, but do the hammering in a part of Syria well removed from where that affiliate dominates the ground force combat component of the American-led anti-ISIS coalition.

Ideally this Turkish thrust will be of limited duration and will serve as a substitute for anti-Kurdish military operations east of the Euphrates River, where American forces are present.

But what if (for example) Syrian Kurds, suffering casualties and perhaps defeat in the Afrin salient, elect to engage targets inside Turkey from positions east of the Euphrates?

What if such targeting were to expand Turkish-Syrian Kurdish hostilities from the extreme northwestern corner of Syria to areas where the Kurds form an essential part of the anti-ISIS “partner force”?

What if Turkish retaliatory strikes were to engage—presumably unintentionally—American forces?

To the extent Mr. Putin seeks divine intercession in the activities of mankind, it would be for this sort of scenario.

What this possibility illustrates is the anemic and perhaps moribund state of Turkish-American bilateral diplomacy with respect to Syria. Yes, Washington has acknowledged Ankara’s concerns over the identity of the anti-ISIS ground “partner force.” And yes, Washington has pledged to do nothing that would imperil Turkish security.

In recent days, however, the United States has made important statements about the post-ISIS stabilization of eastern Syria and American objectives and strategy concerning all of Syria.

Were these statements preceded by intense consultations with Turkey aimed at precluding misunderstandings and identifying areas of agreement?

Why is there no American ambassador in Ankara?

Why is there no senior American special envoy being dispatched to Turkey in the absence of an ambassador?

Is the administration unaware of what the Kremlin is seeking from this latest dust-up?

And is Ankara fully aware of the trap Mr. Putin has set? Are its objectives in the Afrin district sufficiently time-and-effects-limited to minimize the chances of an outbreak of hostilities elsewhere?

Or have Turkish domestic politics reached the point where a potential clash with a NATO ally is no longer unthinkable?

Has Ankara taken any initiative to offer Washington help in stabilizing the predominantly Arab areas east of the Euphrates River?

Turkish anxiety over the American relationship with the YPG is understandable. Is Ankara going out of its way to offer alternatives?

The worst possible outcome of Turkish-American bilateral diplomatic lassitude over Syria would be to hand the Kremlin the kind of easy victory it reaped in the wake of the 2013 red-line fiasco, but this one driving a stake directly into the heart of NATO.

Unless Washington is comfortable with such a scenario and unless Turkey is content to turn away from Washington and enter Moscow’s orbit, these two allies owe it to themselves to make a sustained effort to get on the same page in Syria.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.