Trump’s move does not make Erdogan a winner

Erdogan feels increasingly under siege by nationalist, anti-American and pro-Russia circles.
Saturday 22/12/2018
Turkish-backed Syrian fighters train in a camp in the Aleppo countryside in northern Syria, December 16. (AFP)
End of forays? Turkish-backed Syrian fighters train in a camp in the Aleppo countryside in northern Syria, December 16. (AFP)

The resignation of James Mattis as US secretary of defence reveals something I described in a previous column as “American disarray.” It indicates a new stage of a mismanagement at the very highest levels in the world’s only superpower.

We knew that US President Donald Trump’s “you’re fired” style would manifest itself in the White House but the departure of Mattis is not only about Syria or the Middle East but the world order.

Trump’s apparently erratic decision to order a full-scale pullout of Syria may be the single clear sign that the American era has ended. Given the spectacular disarray in Washington, observers discern an element of irreversibility in events.

Certainly, the Syrian withdrawal will lead to a reshuffling of cards. Some see continuity in Trump’s decision and Barack Obama’s attitude to Syria. Even so, the US presence in Syria did help maintain a delicate balance.

As David Ignatius correctly put it in the Washington Post: “Because most Americans didn’t watch the conflict on television, they didn’t appreciate the unlikely fact that it was successful. It destroyed the Islamic State; it stabilised north-eastern Syria; it blocked Iranian expansion; it checked Russian hegemony; it gave the US some bargaining leverage for an eventual political settlement in Syria but none of that evidently mattered in the end to Trump.”

Who wins from Trump’s decision to withdraw?

There is a chance for Russia to acquire further political influence. Moscow appreciates that Trump seems to have acknowledged Russian efforts to bolster the Assad regime, push it forward as a vital part of any solution and that its achievements strengthen its lasting foothold over the eastern Mediterranean.

Russian President Vladimir Putin would need to maintain a fine balance between Tehran and Damascus and serve as a protector of sorts to the local Kurds. He could do this perhaps by helping the Kurds gain some form of self-rule.

The Russian president’s imprint is sure to be on the new Syrian constitution and he will need to keep all of this in mind. He will surely encourage the armed Kurdish groups, which control large parts of north-eastern Syria, to hand the land to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Kurds have signalled their readiness, in a move they hope will squeeze Ankara.

What about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

If various reports are true, what angered Mattis enough for him to resign was Erdogan’s and his ministers’ rhetoric about the Kurdish militia. Mattis’s counterpart, former top general Hulusi Akar, threatened to “bury the Kurds.”

It is important to note that in the crisis engulfing Washington, it is mostly the Pentagon that feels aggrieved both by Trump’s actions and those of America’s NATO ally, Turkey.

For a long time, a dominant flank of senior officials in Washington favoured an appeasement policy towards Erdogan. They failed to realise he was a gambler and a risk-taker. They didn’t grasp the fact that Erdogan is not a consensus-seeking negotiator. As such, he has little understanding of the innermost workings of the NATO alliance.

However, Erdogan has been successful in the sense that his government has bent the mighty Americans to its will and administration and helped weaken it in a region where its presence mattered vitally.

Now, probably Mattis and others know that they have been misled — if not duped — by Ankara and that this leaves almost no room for the United States in the Syrian process.

There should not be any illusions about Erdogan as the ultimate victor. His decision to delay an incursion speaks volumes. The US pullout spells the end of Erdogan’s dreams for a Syria without Assad and with a pliable Sunni administration in power.

Erdogan feels increasingly under siege by nationalist, anti-American and pro-Russia circles. They shrewdly push him to restart talks with the man he has long vilified — Assad. That day may not be far in the future. If it comes to pass, Erdogan may see his position weaken.

Trump may have helped put the final nail into the coffin of neo-Ottoman expansionism, once forcefully promoted by Erdogan and his former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.