Mattis does appear to be sincere in his efforts to turn the page with his counterparts in Turkey. But his efforts will seem futile unless President Trump pushes for a greater American military footprint in eastern Syria to offset the loss of SDF forces. This approach is anathema to the president’s own statements during the campaign and is out of step with current U.S. military thinking about the conflict and the ability to defeat ISIS through a heavy reliance on local militias. Thus, the U.S.-SDF partnership is likely to endure, so long as the United States remains at war with ISIS—meaning that tensions with Turkey will also endure.
Turkey’s tensions with its NATO allies have increased considerably since the failed July 15 coup attempt. Erdogan has stoked these tensions for domestic populist gains, with elements of the media loyal to his Justice and Development Party (AKP) spreading a false narrative of Western support for the overthrow and decapitation of his government. Turkish populism has moved in parallel to the rise in influence of far-right nationalism in certain Western democracies, yielding a symbiotic relationship between the AKP and the far right: They both use fear of “the other” to shape political rhetoric during campaigns. The difference in Turkey is that the rule of law has deteriorated since the failed coup attempt.
Yet, despite the tensions, key elements of the U.S. government are intent on improving relations with Turkey. The arguments in favor of strengthened cooperation rest on the longer-term threat to U.S. security in Europe and the importance of maintaining order in the transatlantic alliance. Trump has challenged the fundamentals of these key assumptions with his repeated criticism of NATO, but aside from him and a few of his current and former advisers, most contend that his campaign slogan of “America first” doesn’t mean “America alone,” or a U.S. without allies.
To engage Turkey, the United States is trying to walk a fine line. In the short term, it has indicated that it will increase intelligence cooperation with Turkey to help target the PKK. This arrangement predates the war against ISIS and the U.S. partnership with the SDF. The key problem now is that any effort to help with Turkish strikes on the PKK or the group’s leaders could undermine the U.S. war plan in Syria.
The United States already provides Turkey with targeting assistance and help tracking PKK finances in Europe. An expansion into targeting assistance, however, would create a perfect catch-22. Any such agreement would have to be kept quiet, owing to the very nature of these types of programs, in addition to the potential risk to the U.S. war effort in Syria. A secret program could win a private thank you from the Turkish government, but would do little to gain leverage over Turkey to deliver on American demands of Ankara.