Trump’s Syria Pullout Plan Cannot Win Turkey Back
After five long years, President Donald Trump ostensibly removed the single biggest obstacle to improving U.S. ties with Turkey. During a December 2018 phone call, the U.S. president offered his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a political windfall by deciding to withdraw American forces from Syria, telling him, “You know what? It’s yours. I’m leaving.” Trump then tasked Turkey with finishing off Islamic State in Syria, hoping this would suffice to mend relations with Ankara.
Those words should have been music to Erdogan’s ears. Bilateral relations between the two allies have taken a nosedive since 2014, when Washington partnered with Syrian Kurds organized under the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to fight Islamic State in Syria. Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist organization and has repeatedly implored Washington to drop the group and instead delegate its counter-terrorism mission to Turkey. On the phone that day in December, Trump finally took Erdogan up on his offer.
However, it didn’t take long before Erdogan renewed his vow to attack Syrian Kurdish forces in U.S.-controlled territory in northeastern Syria. Ankara then lashed out against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and snubbed a meeting with National Security Advisor John Bolton. Trump took the spat to Twitter, threatening to “devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.”
So why the continued tensions? While Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria is widely regarded as a victory for Erdogan, the move has so far done little to appease the Turkish invective against the United States. In fact, it has only sharpened the fundamental disagreement over the future of the Kurds that has strained bilateral relations for years. Washington wants to ensure that Ankara does not go after the Syrian Kurds who have been fighting Islamic State, whereas decimating the YPG’s military and political power remains a top priority for Turkey. As long as Ankara and Washington continue to have incompatible interests in Syria, winning Turkey back will take more than a quick exit from the scene.
Erdogan knows how to sweet-talk Trump into clearing U.S. forces that stand in the way of his own designs for Syria and its Kurds. Recently he penned a syrupy sweet op-ed in the New York Times, promising not only to take over the fight against Islamic State but also to implement a “comprehensive strategy to eliminate the root causes of radicalization.” On both pledges, the Turkish president is almost certain to disappoint U.S. expectations.
Erdogan’s government has neither the capacity nor the will to deliver his promises. According to the Wall Street Journal, Turkish officials have asked the United States for “substantial military support, including airstrikes, transport and logistics,” that would effectively deepen American military involvement in Syria. Indeed, Erdogan does not even appear to have the full support of his own army for such a mission: On Dec. 31, he demoted two top Turkish generals who reportedly objected to his Syria policy.
More importantly, while Islamic State has carried numerous horrific attacks in Turkey — including the deadliest-ever on Turkish soil — Turkey’s Islamist government has never treated the group as a top threat. Ankara was slow to roll back its lax border policies that allowed the jihadists to flourish in northern Syria from 2012 to 2014, and it was loath to allow the U.S.-led coalition access to its Incirlik airbase for counter-terrorism operations.
On the contrary, from the outset, Ankara’s primary concern has been the status of Syrian Kurds who share a border with Turkey’s own majority-Kurdish regions. Since 2016, Turkey has carried out two military operations against the YPG — which draws Ankara’s wrath for its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terror group that has led an insurgency against the Turkish state since the 1980s.
In fact, Trump’s decision to pull out troops came amidst Turkish military plans for a third ground offensive into northeast Syria, also designed to target the YPG. While that plan appears tabled for now, Erdogan is unlikely to stop threatening the group — especially once American soldiers are disembedded from it. On Jan. 4, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo highlighted “the importance of ensuring that the Turks don’t slaughter the Kurds,” drawing the ire of Ankara.
Three days later, Bolton arrived in Turkey, joined by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford and Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffrey. They were there to seek a modus vivendi between Ankara and Washington’s Syrian partners that would ensure peaceful coexistence. Jeffrey reportedly even brought a “color-coded map” of the areas where the United States hopes to establish a power-sharing agreement in Syria.
Given Turkey’s longstanding fear of Kurdish self-rule in Syria and elsewhere, the trio has encountered strong pushback from Ankara. Even before Erdogan snubbed the officials, Turkey’s pro-government media covered the visit with sensationalist headlines. The pro-Erdogan daily Star, for one, accused the United States of “protecting the terrorists,” referring to Jeffrey’s map as a “terror shield” for the YPG. The Islamist daily Yeni Safak published a photo of the three officials, running the headline, “Who do you think you are?”
Indeed, the most telling attacks have come against Jeffrey. The special envoy is a former ambassador to Turkey known for his sympathy for the Turkish position on Syria. Turkish media had therefore spared him the kind of rhetoric used against officials like Brett McGurk, who was until recently Washington’s special envoy to the campaign against Islamic State. McGurk was the face of the U.S.-Kurdish partnership in Syria and, hence, Ankara’s favorite boogeyman. Turkey’s state-run media recently called McGurk the new “Lawrence of Arabia,” in reference to the British spy who stoked the Arab rebellions against the Ottomans during World War I.
Since McGurk’s recent resignation, Jeffrey has picked up his portfolio. He appears set to also pick up the Turkish fury. The Wall Street Journal quoted a former U.S. official calling Jeffrey’s map “Sykes-Picot on acid,” referring to the secret British-French plans to break up the Ottoman Empire. The quote appears to have delighted the editors of Turkey’s Islamist media, making rounds of headlines — with Jeffrey’s photo at the center.
Trump’s optimism about mending U.S.-Turkish relations with his Syrian pullout might meet the same end as Jeffrey’s short-lived welcoming and Bolton’s dismissal from Ankara. Rather than pursuing a quick fix and offering radical policy shifts over the phone that put his aides on the Turkish crosshairs, the U.S. president would be better off sticking to an incremental approach that taps into the expertise of his national security team and their Turkish counterparts.
There is already a Syria roadmap in place with Ankara, a long, slow, and painful effort to negotiate a modus vivendi between Washington’s Turkish and Syrian Kurdish partners in Manbij. The United States could replicate a similar model in Syrian Kurdish-controlled territories to the east of the Euphrates River. In the absence of a broader Syria strategy, however, trying to balance divergent interests of ideologically opposed allies will not suffice.
Washington’s relationship with the YPG gives it historic leverage over Turkey and the PKK, and uniquely positions it as an arbitrator between its NATO ally and its partner in arms in the fight against Islamic State. The United States could encourage the two sides to return to the negotiating table to revive the Kurdish peace process derailed in 2015 and, in the process, help normalize Turkey’s relationship with the YPG in northern Syria as well. The short-lived and pragmatic partnership between these two adversaries during the Kurdish peace process proved capable of delivering wins against Islamic State. Although resuscitating that relationship will be no easy task, it is certain to offer a more viable and sustainable resolution to the problem at hand than a hasty U.S. exit from the conflict.
The prudent pace of deconflicting, confidence building, and reconciliation might not resonate well with Trump’s erratic policy biorhythm. But as anyone familiar with the Middle East would caution, pursuit of a quick fix over a phone call or through a tweet tends not to end well for any of the parties involved.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. @aykan_erdemir
Merve Tahiroglu is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. @MerveTahiroglu