A key drawback of Washington’s growing global list of allies and security clients is that some of them hate each other more than any enemies of the United States. The current turmoil associated with President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American military personnel from northern Syria highlights the problem. That deployment served as a symbolic barrier discouraging Turkey from attacking the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-dominated militia that had worked with the United States to combat ISIS.
That collaboration has been a sore point in relations between Washington and Ankara for years. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan considers both the SDF and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)—a Marxist insurgent group that has been waging a secessionist war in southeastern Turkey for over three decades—to be terrorist organizations.
As a result, the Trump administration had been on an increasingly shaky diplomatic tightrope, endeavoring to placate both Ankara and the SDF. In November 2017, Trump tried to ease the Erdoğan government’s seething resentment by pledging to stop providing weapons to the SDF. His concession, though, had minimal effect. In August 2018, Erdoğan accused the United States of a “stab in the back” for continuing to support the Syrian Kurds.
Critics who accuse Trump of giving Ankara a “green light” to launch the current military offensive against the SDF ignore the inherent dilemma in U.S. policy. Washington has certainly treated the Syrian Kurds as de facto allies in the fight against ISIS. But Turkey is more than a de facto ally—it is a formal U.S. treaty ally and a fellow member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
It is certainly possible to criticize that relationship, and I am on record (along with other critics) for advocating Turkey’s expulsion from NATO for a growing list of domestic and foreign policy misdeeds. But until the Alliance takes such action, the United States has both moral and legal obligations to Ankara.