US envoy James Jeffrey landed in Turkey on Tuesday, where he commemorated Turkey's "martyrs" who had been killed by the Syrian regime, and pledged support for Ankara.
Jeffrey and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been seeking to pivot the US back to a Turkey-first foreign policy in regards to Syria, to slowly jettison parts of what they see as the problematic Kurdish region of eastern Syria and engage in big power politics to confront the Russians and Iranians.
The Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive in Idlib, which began last year and has increased in recent weeks, has led to 700,000 Syrians fleeing toward Turkey and has killed Turkish soldiers. Turkey has sent armored vehicle columns to Idlib to warn the Syrian regime, reinforcing its observation posts that it has maintained there since 2017.
In 2018, Turkey and Russia signed a ceasefire deal for Idlib, which is controlled by the extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, linked to al-Qaeda.
While the Syrian regime sees HTS and Syrian rebel groups as "terrorists," Turkey backs some of these groups, which it has used to fight Kurds in Afrin and Tel Abyad in 2018 and 2019.
Turkey's goal since the election of US President Donald Trump was to get the US to abandon Kurdish partners in eastern Syria and pivot back to supporting Syrian rebels and Turkey.
But Turkey hedged and decided to work closely with Russia and Iran on the Astana peace process for Syria. Turkey also bought Russian air defense systems, and Turkey and Russian leaders enjoyed smiles and ice cream in recent meetings.
In the US, by contrast, Turkey sent security staff to attack peaceful protesters in Washington and has routinely slammed the US for supporting "terrorists" in eastern Syria.
The US says the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces are its temporary, transactional and tactical partners to fight ISIS. The US helped create the SDF, but in fall 2019, when Turkey decided to invade SDF-held areas, the US asked the SDF to dismantle defenses and then moved US forces so Turkey could bomb them.
Unlike Iran, the US prefers big power state-to-state relations to local partners and proxies on the ground.
The US hoped that it could pivot away from the Kurds, which US policy-makers are split on supporting. Some in the US saw the Kurdish fighters as helpful against ISIS and accused Turkey of ethnic cleansing and using extremists. But others viewed the Syrian Kurds as spoiling US relations with Turkey, and want to get rid of them as a partner so that Turkey can be leveraged against Iran. These policy-makers don't mind if Turkey buys Russian arms, attacks US protesters or hosts Hamas, because their main goal is to find a way to create daylight between Iran, Turkey and Russia in Syria. Where there is daylight, there may be room to maneuver and get Turkey to shift.
The US delegation to Turkey this week is a sign of commitment. In addition to Pompeo's support on Twitter, Jeffrey, Syria envoy Joel Rayburn and adviser for Syrian engagement Richard Outzen are involved in talks with Turkey. Only a phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is missing to show how serious the US is.
The pro-Turkey voices have now won out in discussions about Syria, arguing that Turkey is a NATO ally, and that even if it works with Iran and Russia, it's better to have an ally that works with your adversaries than temporary partners who are expendable, like the anti-ISIS fighters the US trained in eastern Syria.
This is the tried-and-true US policy that has been followed with Pakistan and with other countries that feed anti-American rhetoric at home but are ostensibly US allies. Unlike Iran, the US prefers big power state-to-state relations to local partners and proxies on the ground.
To revive relations with Turkey, the US may offer it reentry into the F-35 program, give it Patriot missiles to replace its S-400s or fund Syrian refugees or rebels. The US could also reduce support for the SDF and enable a new Turkish operation in eastern Syria, renew drone links to help Turkey carry out airstrikes on the Kurdistan Workers Party in Iraq or reduce penalties associated with trade with Iran. There is no shortage of menu options for the US, even if some of them take time to be implemented.
Much depends on Turkey's demands. Turkey has never wanted a conflict with the Syrian regime, as its main goal was to defeat the Kurdish groups in Syria that it says are linked to the PKK.
Idlib has always been a problem for Turkey because it is controlled by extremists, but has numerous civilians who will demand entrance to Turkey if the regime takes Idlib. This puts Ankara in a tough spot; it can't abandon Idlib, but it doesn't want Idlib. Now that Turkish soldiers have been killed, it can't be seen to be walking away, but also may not want to follow a US policy of increased confrontation with Russia, the Syrian regime and Iran. Turkey would prefer to get some other support from the US.
Meanwhile, Russia has condemned continued "terrorist" attacks from Idlib on its forces. Russian officials say that Russia "understands difficulties that our Turkish partners face. However, the positions of Syrian forces, the positions of Russian forces – the Hmeimim air base, drone attacks – come under fire daily. We cannot just sit and wait what will happen in Idlib next."
Russia sees Turkey as a key partner, and doesn't want the Americans coming in to take away that partnership. Jeffrey's high-profile visit may prod the Russians to find a new agreement with Ankara. Prior to that agreement, Ankara may wring some concessions from the US.
For the US, the big question is how to convince the SDF in eastern Syria to keep holding thousands of ISIS prisoners and fighting ISIS, while the US works more closely with Turkey. Quietly, the message has been that the SDF should work with the Syrian regime and Moscow, and find an arrangement for the day after the US leaves the rest of eastern Syria.
But missions like the defeat-ISIS campaign are like oil tankers; they don't turn on a dime, and $200 million is being budgeted this year by the US for eastern Syria and for other groups the US supports to defeat ISIS. Defeating ISIS is now being done on a shoestring, far removed from the 2018 plans to "stabilize" eastern Syria.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.