US-Turkey crisis a blessing in disguise

A negotiated handover of a buffer zone along the Syrian border from the United States to Turkey is by far the best outcome.
Friday 18/01/2019

As 2018 closed, Turkey and the United States seemed to be mending fences. For instance, US President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement that he would withdraw the 2,000 US troops from north-eastern Syria must have been music to the ears of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Trump signalled he was prepared to end the alliance with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish force that has made up the bulk of ground forces, helped by US air power, that have all but defeated the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.

Trump appeared to have given a green light to the Turkish Army to begin an operation to dismantle the self-proclaimed autonomous entity in Syria set up by the YPG, which Ankara says is an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984.

Not only that, but Trump echoed Ankara’s talking points. Bringing up his December 14 phone call with Erdogan, Trump insisted Turkey would finish the job of defeating ISIS.

Even if no serious Syria-watcher in the United States was prepared to buy that, there was a modicum of understanding regarding the logic underlying Trump’s move. The problem with the decision was not its substance but rather its timing and the abrupt manner it was made public. Washington has no long-term, strategic reason to keep boots on the ground in Syria.

Adding to the drama was the visit to Ankara by US national security adviser John Bolton, which ended in disaster after Erdogan refused to meet with Bolton.

What irked Erdogan was Bolton’s insistence that the US withdrawal is conditional on Turkey pledging not to attack the YPG in Syria. The prospect of Washington extending the pullout date well beyond the 30-day period originally foreseen is another sticking point.

As mop-up operations against ISIS in the border areas with Iraq might go on for months, Bolton’s announcement suggests US special forces, along with commandos from France and other US allies, are in no hurry to pack up and leave.

It is significant that the message was delivered by Bolton, who has repeatedly said US troops need to stay in Syria to counter Iran and its proxies. Bolton travelled to Ankara after talks in Israel where he reassured Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and security officials that Washington remained fully committed to containing Iran.

Erdogan had good reason to be angry with Bolton and the United States, as he expressed, with his usual verve, in a speech January 8 before his parliamentary party.

The fresh crisis could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It buys the United States and Turkey time to forge a bargain on north-eastern Syria. A gradual withdrawal is a more favourable scenario for Ankara than an abrupt departure because it relieves Erdogan from having to rush into Syria and risk a confrontation with the Assad regime and Iran allied with the Kurds.

A negotiated handover of a buffer zone along the Syrian border from the United States to Turkey is by far the best outcome. Ideally, the Americans would collect the heavy weaponry they distributed to the YPG but whether this scenario is in the cards is anyone’s guess, especially after the bad blood generated by Bolton’s Mideast trip.

The diplomatic mishap is a reminder that one of the obstacles to true US-Turkey rapprochement is the deep dysfunctionality of the Trump administration. Erdogan likely believed that he had reached a deal with Trump but now the White House is changing tack, possibly due to the backlash at home, notably by Republicans in Congress and hawks in the administration.

Now that Trump has got rid of James Mattis as US defence secretary, he has a freer hand in foreign policy but he remains unable to follow through on his decisions. As a result, America keeps zigzagging in Syria with no clear direction.

Turkey’s problem is much broader. A fair amount of what Erdogan wants from the United States does not depend on Trump’s will. Even if the US president wanted to do so, he could not simply decree the extradition of Fethullah Gulen over the failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.

Also, the Turkish government is negotiating the transfer of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, convicted in New York of helping Iran evade sanctions; yet Trump is in no position to influence judicial proceedings in the case.

Finally, there is no love lost for Turkey and Erdogan in the US Congress. Capitol Hill is showing its teeth over Ankara’s purchase of S-400 air defence systems from Russia. The art of the deal is not what it used to be.

Dimitar Bechev is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Centre and a research fellow at the Centre for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. This article first appeared on and is reprinted with permission.