A new ‘Johnson letter’?: Obama’s Turkey-Russia problem

Ömer Taşpınar
The real problem for the next American administration will not only be Russian hegemony over Syria but Turkey's propensity to challenge this domination by trying to get NATO involved in a conflict with Moscow.

What a difference a few months make. Initially, the Barack Obama administration was quick to dismiss Moscow's entry into the Syrian war as a “misguided adventure that will easily turn into a quagmire.” Such a reaction was hardly surprising for an administration that refused American exceptionalism. After all, Obama had overlearned the lessons of Iraq. He never believed there was a military solution to the civil war in Syria. Almost eight years after being in power, the Obama White House remains as reluctant as ever to project decisive American military power in the conflict. There is still an acute awareness about the limits of American military power in terms of changing the situation in Syria for the better.
However, it is also becoming painfully clear that the American reluctance to get involved in Syria comes at a geostrategic price. Russian President Vladimir Putin has radically altered the dynamics of the Syrian conflict in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Unlike Obama, Putin is all about hard power and it is clear that Russia is in Syria to stay. This means Assad's regime is there to stay, too. Maybe there will be some cosmetic changes in terms of leadership in Damascus down the line. But the nature of the regime is not likely to change radically as long as Russian and Iranian forces remain on the ground while American forces continue to be absent.
This situation means that the next American president will inherit a Syrian conflict where Russia calls the shots. Yes, there will be a few cease-fires along the way, such as the one that has been negotiated this week between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart. But as long as Russia remains in charge in Syria, these cease-fires will be short-lived and tactical. As Moscow has already clearly demonstrated in Ukraine, a cease-fire is always tactical -- serving the consolidation of military gains and fooling the international community with a semblance of Russian goodwill.
Another major geostrategic risk that needs to be factored into the American reluctance to get involved in Syria is the likelihood of a Russian-Turkish confrontation. This could turn into a major problem in case Ankara tries to get NATO involved in the conflict. This is why Washington will try very hard to avert any NATO-Russia confrontation in Syria provoked by Turkey. The logical path for Washington would be to warn Turkey against any unilateral military intervention in Syria. There is a clear understanding in Washington that Ankara's main concern in Syria is the emergence of a Kurdish state under the hegemony of Kurdish nationalists affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The difficulty for Washington is that these Kurdish nationalists in Syria are also the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). To make things even more complicated, there are also clear signs that Russians and the Syrian regime are also courting the Syrian Kurds.
Under such circumstances, the most sensible course of action for Washington is to convince Ankara that a military intervention against the Kurds in Syria will lead to a Russian retaliation against Turkey. More importantly, Ankara needs to know that any confrontation with Russia will not automatically lead to NATO's involvement in the war. In other words, Ankara should not count on NATO's collective defense mechanism stipulated by Article 5 of in its defiance of Russia. Does this situation remind you of a painful chapter in Turkish-American relations? The “infamous” then-US President Lyndon Johnson letter of 1964 warned Turkey not to rely on NATO in case of confrontation with Moscow over Cyprus. A whole generation of Turkish diplomats and soldiers were traumatized in its aftermath. An “Obama letter” may now be in the making. Needless to say the strategic ramifications of such a scenario would poison Turkish-American relations for decades to come.