In better times, the Afrin district in northwest Syria is well known for its beautiful and plentiful olive orchards. Today it is the epicenter of Middle Eastern great-power politics, as its Kurdish population — which has fought alongside U.S.-sponsored rebels against the Syrian government — is under attack from Turkish military forces. The offensive, called “Olive Branch” by the Turks, reflects justifiable Turkish concerns about border security. Their view is that the Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units or YPG, is aligned with the Kurdish terrorist group PKK.
The U.S. would prefer that our Turkish allies do not attack our Kurdish allies, who have proven to be a strong and capable fighting force on the ground against the Islamic State. But sensitivities in Ankara are high, given decades of murderous attacks in Turkey by the PKK, and it’s understandable that the Turks are seeking to create a “neutral zone” on the Syrian side of the border to ensure that Kurdish terrorist groups cannot easily cross the porous strip of ground.
The Syrian government in Damascus, led by the war criminal Bashar al-Assad, has objected strenuously to this cross-border offensive. The Russians, who are more or less calling the shots in Syria, are simply stepping aside and watching with glee as NATO allies Turkey and the U.S. act at cross-purposes. At the moment, Washington is trying to sail a narrow passage between supporting its erstwhile Kurdish combat partners and not blowing up the relationship with Turkey. But the room for maneuver is closing and a choice is looming. What should the U.S. do?
First, from a tactical perspective, we need to keep our eye on job one: defeating the Islamic State, while also doing what we can to diminish Assad’s control over Syria. We’ve taken away most of the ISIS’s territory in eastern Syria and Western Iraq, but the fight is not over. We will continue to need Kurdish ground troops east of the Euphrates River, and we also need stability in northern Iraq, a Kurdish federal enclave. This means quietly persuading our Turkish allies to be precise, keep the operation in Afrin short and avoid civilian casualties. If things escalate further, it only helps Assad and diminishes the enthusiasm of the Kurds to fight with us against the Islamic State. We should also be quietly reassuring other Kurdish partners to the east of Afrin in Syria and in Iraq of long-term U.S. support.
More specifically, the White House should publicly recognize Turkey’s security concerns and immediately get a qualified envoy with strong experience to Ankara. (One suggestion: former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Frank Ricciardone, currently the president of the American University of Cairo.) High-level administration officials such as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis should head to Ankara for consultations. And the Pentagon must be working its channels with the Turkish military on a daily basis to deconflict operations and intentions.
Second, the most important strategic U.S. goal in the region (beyond supporting Israel) is to maintain our relationship with Turkey. The big winner in a U.S.-Turkish confrontation, of course, is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who must be licking his chops with anticipation of a serious blow-up between our nations, and the resultant impact on NATO. There are already significant tensions in the U.S.-Turkish partnership, including the highly controversial residence in the U.S. of the disgraced Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suspects of masterminding the coup against him in 2016. The U.S. and other NATO allies are also rightly concerned over serious allegations of human rights violations in Turkey and government pressure on the judiciary, the media and senior military figures.
That said, we simply cannot afford to “lose” Turkey. Throughout my time as the supreme allied commander of NATO, I was impressed with the Turkish military’s professionalism and contribution to the alliance — in Afghanistan, Libya and the Balkans, as well as counter-piracy efforts and as members of our command staffs. The Turks have a strong and diversified economy, a young and growing population, and have stood alongside the U.S. for much of the post-World War II era. Their importance both regionally and globally will continue to grow in the 21st century. Yes, U.S. officials can and should criticize Turkish actions where they violate international law or human rights — but in private, at least at this stage of the situation.
We owe our Kurdish partners a serious effort to mitigate the impact of the Turkish operation in Afrin, and should do everything we can over time to help ease tensions between Turks and Kurds around the region. But the overall U.S. strategic interest lies in keeping Turkey aligned with NATO and the trans-Atlantic community. It would be a geopolitical mistake of near-epic proportions to see Turkey drift out of that orbit and end up aligned with Russia and Iran in the Levant.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.