Turks see ‘historic success’ in US withdrawal from Syria

Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkey had “Manbij and the east of the Euphrates in front of us. We are working intensively on this subject”.
Thursday 20/12/2018
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech in Ankara.
Seeing big win. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech in Ankara.

ISTANBUL – The decision to withdraw US soldiers from Syria has strengthened Turkey’s position in the region and is likely to boost cooperation between Ankara and Moscow.

“Turkey’s historic success” read a headline in the online edition of Sabah, a Turkish daily close to the government. The state-run Anadolu news agency reported on December 20 that the US withdrawal had started with American trucks crossing the border from Syria into Iraq during the night.

The US decision followed a threat by Turkey to send more than 20,000 troops and pro-Turkish militiamen into an area in Syria where 2,000 US soldiers have been deployed. “That put the US in a difficult situation,” analyst Huseyin Alptekin said in an interview.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised pressure on the United States last week by announcing the impending military intervention into Syria to push the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a US ally, back from the border. Following a telephone conversation with US President Donald Trump on December 14, Erdogan said Trump had given a “positive response” on the issue of the intervention.

Trump’s order for the US troops to come home was a consequence of Erdogan’s announcement, said Alptekin, an analyst at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, a think-tank that often reflects government thinking.

Alptekin dismissed speculation that Trump ordered the troop withdrawal in a deal with Erdogan that would oblige the Turkish government to stop its public accusations against Saudi Arabia after the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October. “I don’t believe that at all,” Alptekin said.

A US troop withdrawal would rob the YPG and its political mother organisation, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), of their most important ally and shield against Turkish military pressure. As a result, the PYD could be expected to seek closer ties with Russia a President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Alptekin said. But he noted that Turkey was a more important partner to Russia than the PYD.

Erdogan’s government did not say whether the US decision means that the planned intervention into Syria, which could start with a push to drive the YPG out of the town of Manbij around 20km south of the Turkish border, would be called off.

Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkey had “Manbij and the east of the Euphrates in front of us. We are working intensively on this subject,” according to Anadolu. “Right now it is being said that some ditches, tunnels were dug in Manbij and to the east of the Euphrates. They can dig tunnels or ditches if they want, they can go underground if they want when the time and place comes they will be buried in the ditches they dug. No one should doubt this.”

Onur Oymen, a former Turkish ambassador, said many questions were still unanswered after Trump’s decision. It was not clear whether “the US will gather the weapons” that it had given to the YPG and whether US air strikes in Syria would stop now that Trump had declared that the Islamic State had been defeated, Oymen said in an interview.

Max Hoffman, associate director for national security and international policy at the Centre for American Progress, a Washington think-tank, said the US decision could have negative consequences for Turkey in the long run. If Turkey decided to send troops into north-eastern Syria unilaterally, “they will face a long-term insurgency & impossible task of holding/stabilizing the area,” Hoffman wrote on Twitter.

With a possible agreement between the Syrian Kurds and Damascus, “Assad will be strengthened & will seek to use Kurdish militants to exact revenge on Turkey,” Hoffman added. Politically, “Turkey will be alone across the table from Russia, Iran, Syria – powers that do not share Ankara’s goals in Syria.”