Tensions over Syria have negatively impacted the transatlantic alliance. The United States and Turkey, two NATO allies, have long debated how best to prosecute the war against the Islamic State. The European Union has its own set of bilateral issues with Ankara and Washington, and has also felt the negative effects from the crisis in Syria. To discuss these tensions, and to explore areas of overlap, the Heinrich Boll Foundation and the Foreign Policy Research Institute gathered a group of 57 American, European, and Turkish scholars and government officials in Brussels in November 2019. The meeting coincided with the start of “Operation Peace Spring,” Turkey’s cross border intervention in northeast Syria. The military campaign upended the American and European presence in Syria, forcing a hasty coalition withdrawal, which together prompted widespread condemnation of President Donald Trump’s acquiescence to the invasion andof Ankara’s determination to use military force in a pacified region of Syria. Operation Peace Spring prompted broader European and American concerns about instability in Syria’s Northeast and how the operation could enable an ISIS resurgence.
These narrow, Syria-specific tensions are a microcosm for much broader and consequential issues for the future of the transatlantic relations. At the core of the disagreement, the United Statesand the European Union have elevated the threat of transnational Jihadist terrorism, linked to the Islamic State’s ability to inspire or plan attacks in the West. This reasoning has led Washington and Brussels to accept working with the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to deny ISIS safe haven in Syria. For Turkey, the threat of cross-border, PKK-linked terrorism is a threat equal to that posed by ISIS, giving way to a policy of resisting the U.S.-led war in Syria and enabling Ankara’s entente with the Russian Federation. Ankara’s entente with Moscow, of course, has further undermined transatlantic relations, particularly as NATO tensions with Russia grow, while Turkish outreach to President Vladimir Putin continues unabated. The threat of Russia also raises broader and uncomfortable questions about the U.S. and President Trump, and whether the once steadfast American commitment to transatlantic security can withstand the President’s unpredictable Twitter feed and continued inability to understand how the Western Alliance works.
These issues framed two-days of conversation, spread over six different panels that began with a discussion of the future transatlantic relations. Following this discussion, the conference discussed in back-to-back panels the prospects for peace in Syria and what the future of the Syrian state may look like. After these two sessions, the first day of the conference ended with a discussion on Turkish democracy and how that may impact Ankara’s foreign policy. On the second day, the first panel discussed the state of EU-Turkey relations and finished with a discussion of Turkey’s role in the Western Alliance. What follows is a summary of these panel discussions.