Policy Analysis 17 November, 2014

The US and Turkey: Diverging Views on Syria

Policy Analysis Unit

The Policy Analysis Unit is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Policy Analysis Unit draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Assessment Report, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


The recent American-Turkish polarization over the handling of the situation in Kobane, the Kurdish town close to the Turkish border in northern Syria, is just the tip of the iceberg among a growing series of American-Turkish differences on a range of regional and domestic issues. The divergence of views between Turkey and America on the Arab revolutions, and the counterrevolution that followed, are no secret. Additionally, Washington has not disguised its irritation with the downturn in Turkish-Israeli relations, nor is it pleased with Ankara’s openness to some Islamist forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Some in Congress have started to take a harder line against Turkey, accompanied by a parallel escalation in American media calling for a re-examination of Turkey’s place in NATO, and even its expulsion, following claims that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has “authoritarian” and “extreme Islamist” leanings.[1] In December 2013, insinuations by the then Prime Minister Erdogan of a possible US role in the corruption investigations launched by the Turkish police against those close to him, and his threat to expel the US ambassador from Ankara, were but a forewarning of growing tensions in bilateral relations between the US and Turkey.[2]

As the crisis in Kobane escalates, US-Turkish disagreements over priorities in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have sharpened. Kobane has been facing a major assault from ISIL, which has caused most of its residents to flee to Turkey, leaving behind only a few hundred fighters from the Kurdish Popular Protection Units which are allied with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Despite the PYD being backed by US airstrikes, the inability of airstrikes alone to stop ISIL, along with the risk of Kobane falling to ISIL (albeit a risk that has now lessened), has driven American-Turkish relations to a new low. America wants Turkey to support PYD fighters, but Turkey considers the PYD a terrorist party, because of its links to the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – an organization both Turkey and the United States class as terrorist.

Discrepancy in Calculations

The current tensions between the US and Turkey are predominantly linked to a discrepancy in both sides’ assessments and priorities on Syria. Turkey has long been advocating the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as critical to an overall strategy on Syria. For the United States, this is outside the scope of its new war in the Middle East. Despite the efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry to deny the existence of any “discrepancy”[3] between the two sides regarding the war on ISIL, facts would seem to point otherwise. Frequent reports in US media by unnamed US officials have confirmed growing tension between the two countries and of American “disappointment” with Turkey.[4] On the Turkish side, Ankara was quick to deny the statements of US national security advisor Susan Rice maintaining that Turkey had agreed to allow international coalition forces to use the Incirlik military base in the war against ISIL.[5] This was followed by the US initiative to airdrop arms to Kurdish fighters, which completely disregarded Turkish objections to the plan, but did result in a slight change to the balance of forces in favor of the Kurdish fighters in Kobane.

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This Policy Analysis was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which appeared online on November 6, 2014, please click here.

[1] James Goldgeier, “ISIS Fight not a NATO Mission, or in Turkey’s Interest,” The New York Times, October 14, 2014, http://goo.gl/lA1vyI; Jonathan Schanzer, “Time to Kick Turkey out of NATO?” Politico Magazine, October 09, 2014, http://goo.gl/vEjWBy; “Turkey’s Wrong Turn,” The New York Times, January 27, 2014, http://goo.gl/ktP6ia; Martin Matishak, “Ros-Lehtinen blasts Turkey as slow to act on ISIS,” The Hill, October 21, 2014, http://goo.gl/rnrkrE.

[2] Selcuk Gokoluk and Benjamin Harvey, “Turkey’s Erdogan Says Foreign Ambassadors Could Be Expelled,” Bloomberg News, December 21, 2013, http://goo.gl/kiVkR6.

[3] “Kerry: ‘No discrepancy’ over Turkey’s role in fight against Islamic State,” Reuters, October 14, 2014, http://goo.gl/oOZQVB.

[4] Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly, “U.S. frustration rises as Turkey withholds military help from besieged Kobane,” The Washington Post, October 9, 2014, http://goo.gl/rjV7Wz.

[5] “Turkish official denies report of deal with US to use bases for ISIS strikes,” FoxNews.com, October 13, 2014, http://goo.gl/A0Lbzj.