Reflections on Northern Syria and the Strategic Importance of Turkey

Ben Hodges

President Erdogan

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, former Commander U.S. Army Europe, reflects on NATO's response to Turkey's actions in northern Syria and their essential strategic role in relation to Russia.

I was glad to see recently that General Milley CJCS reminded everybody that Turkey is our ally, which is codified in the Washington Treaty. This is helpful, since so much of the emotional outcry captured in headlines over the Turkish assault against Kurdish forces in northern Syria. I was also surprised to read about uniformed officers complaining to media outlets about the U.S. Administration’s decisions, which is normally inappropriate.

ISIS has long been uprooted from northern Syria, though it can of course come back in some form. However, it was never U.S. policy to support a Kurdish enclave along Turkey's southern border in places that were never Kurdish before - although some who were working with the Kurds in Syria should have been aware that this was the principal goal of our Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) proxies – many of whom Turkey links to the PKK. The article by Ambassador Ford in 2017 makes this clear.  The seeds of this situation were planted long ago.

It seems to me that the U.S. made a decision a few years ago to employ a splinter terrorist group of a minority ethnic group for tactical benefit against another terrorist organization which is not and never will be an existential threat to the U.S. or any of our NATO Allies.

For sure, ISIS is a terrible organization that has caused significant geopolitical and humanitarian chaos in the Middle East and Africa. But our policy was enacted at the expense of possibly irretrievably wrecking a relationship with an actual NATO Treaty ally that has given us huge strategic benefit since 1952, and has worked with us on every operation we’ve done except Operation Iraqi Freedom. Could we say the same for many other European allies?

I think that we should hold Turkey accountable for their actions, but think more long-term and more strategically about their essential role against our existential threat, Russia. 

We can hold Turkey accountable by doing something that almost no Administration in decades seems capable of doing: demonstrating long-term commitment to Turkey as an ally and having a relationship that uses quiet, non-public pressure on Turkish leadership, rather than very public criticism which is ineffective and counterproductive.  

Turkey knows their long-term security and economic future and prosperity are tied to the West just as our security and that of our Allies in the greater Black Sea region and the Balkans is tied to Turkey. 

There are ways to do and say things that are necessary for public consumption but which don’t damage relations with an ally forever.

Otherwise we should put a giant red bow on this gift to the Kremlin.