Trump threat adds new twist to US-Turkish row over Syria

Trump hinted at a possible way out. “Create 20 mile safe zone,” he tweeted, a remark apparently describing the establishment of a buffer zone in northern Syria.
Tuesday 15/01/2019
A 2018 file picture shows US President Donald Trump (L) talking with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Face-off. A 2018 file picture shows US President Donald Trump (L) talking with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

ISTANBUL – US President Donald Trump has blasted Turkish plans for an attack on a Kurdish militia in Syria, igniting yet another row between Ankara and Washington. But behind the new war of words, a possible agreement between the two countries on a buffer zone appears to be taking shape.

Trump used Twitter late on Jan 13 to warn Turkey against attacking the YPG militia, a US partner in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria that is seen as a terrorist organization by Ankara. Reconfirming his decision to pull the 2,000 US soldiers out of Syria and his determination to attack remnants of ISIS, Trump added: “Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.” The president added in another tweet: “Likewise, do not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey.”

The messages alarmed the Turkish government. Writing at around 3am at night Turkish time, Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman and security advisor of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said in a Twitter reply to Trump that it was a “fatal mistake” to equate Syrian Kurds with the YPG and its mother organisation, the PKK, regarded as a terrorist group by both Turkey and the US. “Turkey fights against terrorists, not Kurds,” Kalin wrote. “We will protect Kurds and other Syrians against all terrorist threats.”

As Turkish media slammed Trump’s comments as a “scandal”, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a news conference on Jan 14 his country would not be “intimidated” and that “strategic partners don’t talk to each other via Twitter and social media”. But US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Trump’s threat to devastate Turkey’s economy if it attacks the YPG underscored America’s commitment to its partners.

Cavusoglu’s counterpart, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, told reporters after Trump’s tweets that he believes Trump is considering imposing sanctions on its NATO ally if Turkey moves militarily against Kurds in Syria.

"The administration has been very consistent with respect to our requirement that the Turks not go after the Kurds in ways that are inappropriate," Pompeo said in Riyadh after talks with Saudi leaders. "If they are terrorists, we're all about taking down extremists wherever we find them. I think the president's comments this morning are consistent with that."

Asked what Trump would do to “devastate Turkey economically,” Pompeo acknowledged that he did not know but said: “We apply sanctions in many parts the world. I assume he's speaking about those kinds of things but you would have to ask him."

“We want to make sure that the folks who fought with us to take down the caliphate and ISIS have security and also that terrorists ... (in) Syria aren't able to attack Turkey, those are our twin aims,” Pompeo added. “If we can get a space, call it a buffer zone ... if we can get the space and the security arrangements right, this will be a good thing for everyone in the region.”

On January 13, before Trump threatened Turkey, Pompeo told a TV news show that James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syrian engagement, “is fully engaged in conversations with the Turks as well as with the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] in Syria to make sure that” Turkey does not attack Kurds in Syria and that Kurdish fighters do not cross into Turkey to wage their own attacks.

Trump’s Twitter messages drew sharp criticism from former some US analysts and former diplomats.

“Whatever differences there are between the US and Turkey, threatening to ‘devastate’ it economically is not in the interest of the United States,” Steven A. Cook, an expert on Turkish politics at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Twitter.

Trump’s Twitter messages followed the failure of US National Security Advisor John Bolton to extract a promise by Turkey not to attack the YPG once the US soldiers have left Syria. The threat to economically “devastate” Turkey was a reminder that the US is prepared to use economic force even against allies like Turkey. Last summer, American sanctions against Ankara over the detention of an US pastor exacerbated a financial crisis in Turkey.

Relations recovered after the clergyman, Andrew Brunson, was freed in October but the two countries’ conflicting interests in Syria have led to new tensions. Trump made his decision to withdraw US troops in a phone call with Erdogan in December but mixed signals coming from the US administration since have angered Ankara. Cavusoglu said Turkey would “do what is necessary”, in reference to a possible intervention in Syria.

But Trump himself hinted at a possible way out. “Create 20 mile safe zone,” he tweeted, a remark apparently describing the establishment of a buffer zone in northern Syria. Turkey has been pushing for such a zone on the Syrian side of its southern border for years as an instrument to keep the perceived threat posed by the YPG at bay.

Cavusoglu said the buffer zone idea was Erdogan’s proposal that had been tabled in talks with Europeans and Russia. “We have brought it onto the agenda in every meeting,” the Turkish foreign minister said, adding that the administration of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama had rejected the idea as unrealistic. Turkey was “not against” such a zone, Cavusoglu said.

R. Nicholas Burns, a former high-ranking State Department official under numerous US presidents, expressed skepticism on Twitter. “A Safe Zone would require American troops on the ground for possibly years into the future,” Burns wrote. “Foreign policy by twitter not working.”

No details are known about how such an area would be policed. It also remained unclear what the YPG’s reaction to a buffer zone would be. A zone that would ease Turkish concerns would oblige the Kurdish militia to withdraw fighters and weapons from a big part of its autonomous zone in northern Syria, including cities like Kobani and Qamishli that lie right on the Turkish border.

The debate about the buffer zone came two days after Pompeo said he was optimistic that a deal safeguarding Turkish security interests and protecting Syrian Kurds could be reached.

Some commentators say a surprise decision by Turkish authorities to grant permission for the first visitor to talk to jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in more than two years could be meant as a confidence building step in preparations for an agreement over northern Syria. Mehmet Ocalan, Abdullah Ocalan’s brother, traveled to the Turkish prison island of Imrali on Jan 12 to meet the 70 year old PKK chief, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish HDP party said.

News of the visit was greeted with celebratory shots in the air in YPG-governed cities in northern Syria, activists said. Like the PKK, the YPG regards Ocalan as its supreme leader.