Turkey Pulse

Is Erdogan’s brinkmanship forcing Washington to climb down?

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Article Summary
Ankara is pleased with Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria, but it greets this decision with a mixture of caution and skepticism.

Deeply frustrated by what it describes as Washington's broken promises, Turkey has decided to take matters into its own hands in Syria. The Turkish military is poised to start an operation east of the Euphrates River against US-supported Kurdish fighters of the People's Protection Units (YPG).

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement of the operation — and his subsequent remarks about it — show that Turkey is committed to carrying out this operation regardless of what Washington says.

The Turkish military’s Operation Euphrates Shield in 2017 and its Operation Olive Branch this year — both of which were launched over US objections — show that Erdogan has to be taken seriously.

Ankara’s new operation, which Erdogan says is only days ahead, is predicated on the assumption that Washington will ultimately remain passive, as it did during Turkey’s previous operations.

The Pentagon warned Turkey last week that “any unilateral action in northeast Syria would be unacceptable.” There is, however, no indication that Turkey takes this statement seriously.

The unexpected decision by President Donald Trump on Dec. 19 to pull US forces out of Syria caught Ankara by surprise. It also appears to vindicate Erdogan’s stance.

Despite the satisfaction in Ankara over Trump’s announcement, skepticism prevails because of past announcements by Washington that the Turkish side says were not honored.

Ankara is also noting the confusion in Washington, where the Pentagon and key congressmen are said to be working hard to try and alter Trump’s decision, which they say would leave Washington’s Kurdish allies in the lurch.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to YPG fighters as “great partners” in October and said that Washington would ensure that the Kurds “have a seat at the table.”

He added, during his address to the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, that their second objective in Syria was “the removal of all Iranian and Iranian-backed forces” from the country.

Such statements out of Washington led many to believe that the United States would remain in Syria for the foreseeable future, to contain Iran.

Trump’s decision to pull US forces from Syria flies in the face of these statements and also highlights again the lack of a consistent and coherent Syrian policy in Washington.

The concern over a new operation by Turkey east of the Euphrates is that this may result in a face-off between Turkish and US forces, which are deployed in the region to ostensibly fight the Islamic State (IS) alongside their local allies in the YPG.

Many believe such a confrontation would be disastrous for already strained Turkish-US ties. It would also have dire consequences for NATO’s unity.

Erdogan says the Turkish military has no intention of engaging US forces, and that they will only target terrorists. “It is time to realize our decision to wipe out terror groups east of the Euphrates,” he said during an address to a Turkish defense summit Dec. 12.

The United States reportedly has 2,000 Marines stationed at more than 20 military bases east of the Euphrates, a resource-rich area that represents a third of Syrian territory. Recent statements and military moves by Washington in the region have merely increased Turkish suspicions about US intentions.

These include Washington’s request for a special status for areas east of the Euphrates in any Syrian settlement; the US decision to set up a security force of over 30,000 local fighters in the region, which Ankara says will be YPG-led; and the joint US-YPG patrols that were started recently along Syria’s border with Turkey.

These moves fueled Ankara’s sense of urgency regarding the need to prevent further gains by the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, in northern Syria.

Former security and intelligence official Bulent Orakoglu, who currently writes for the pro-government daily Yeni Safak, argued that Ankara has effectively delivered a “diplomatic ultimatum” to the United States over the YPG issue.

Orakoglu also believes that the United States cannot afford to antagonize Turkey.

“The risk that the US and Turkey may clash east of the Euphrates will undoubtedly empower Russia, which wants to destroy NATO, and make it even stronger in the region,” Orakoglu wrote.

He also pointed to the strategic US and NATO bases in Turkey. “The US will not obstruct Turkey under these conditions,” Orakoglu contended.

“If it does, victory — by the Grace of God — will be Turkey’s,” he added, reflecting the bullish mood on the Turkish side.

Orakoglu may not be far off the mark. In an interview with the Greek daily Kathimerini last week, US Assistant Secretary of State A. Wess Mitchell characterized Turkey as an “indispensable ally.” He added that the strategic position of the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, where US forces are deployed, was also “crucial” for Washington.

The Turkish side, however, argues that if the United States was a true ally, it would never have sided with a terrorist group against Turkey in the first place. Ankara also believes that Washington is trying to juggle Turkey and the YPG, thus establishing parity between Turkey and a terrorist organization, which Turkish officials say is “unacceptable.”

In the meantime, Washington has been trying to appease Turkey with various enticements, such as the bounty it placed on the heads of the leadership of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Ankara says the YPG is linked to.

This week also saw the announcement by the US State Department that it had approved the sale of a $3.5 billion Patriot missile system to Turkey.

Despite Washington’s sweeteners, which have been welcomed in their own right, the Turkish side remains resolute over eliminating the YPG threat.

Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria has also emboldened Ankara, despite its cautious “wait-and-see” stance over this development. Trump’s decision came shortly after a phone conversation he held with Erdogan, in which northern Syria was discussed.

Erdogan told a gathering of supporters later, in the central Anatolian city of Konya, that he had received “positive answers” from Trump.

This gives the appearance that Erdogan’s threats to move against the YPG east of the Euphrates were taken seriously by Trump, who decided to climb down and pull US troops out of Syria.

This is a political bonus for Erdogan domestically, coming at a time when the country is preparing for crucial local elections. If Trump can carry out his decision, this will also add to Erdogan’s prestige among his new regional and global partners, starting with Russia.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Ankara this week has also gained added significance following Trump’s announcement.

Notwithstanding all that, though, Ankara — where there is a lot of mistrust regarding US intentions — is not accepting Trump’s decision at face value, since many questions about its implementation remain.

The chance that Trump will be forced by the Pentagon and Congress to revoke his decision also remains a real possibility for Turkish officials.

Security expert Abdullah Agar maintained that Trump’s decision may be part of a fresh ploy to delay or prevent a new incursion by the Turkish military into northern Syria.

Turkey can’t trust America under these circumstances,” Agar said in an interview with CNN Turk. “In recent times it claimed to be a friend and ally but acted as an enemy, and a sly enemy at that,” Agar added.

If Turkey does indeed launch its new operation, which, judging by official remarks, is imminent, this will be Erdogan’s biggest gambit in Syria. He clearly believes, though, that the benefits of the operation outstrip the risks.

Citing information obtained from military sources, Mehmet Acet, who writes for Yeni Safak, reported that Turkey’s operation will not be an all-out invasion of northern Syria, but will target 150 specific YPG targets near the Turkish-Syrian border.

If that is the case, the risk for Erdogan will be limited. He will score political points at home — where nationalist sentiment is running high — for carrying out his threat to strike the YPG in northern Syria.

Erdogan’s brinkmanship with the United States will also appear to be bearing fruit.

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Semih Idiz is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He is a journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years. His opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. His articles have also been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.

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