Erdogan seeks lifeline from Trump to salvage US-Turkey ties

It will take Donald Trump to close a deal with Turkey on a Syrian "safe zone."

al-monitor US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attend the start of the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 11, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.

Jun 14, 2019

Deteriorating US-Turkey relations hinge on Erdogan-Trump ties

Although Washington and Ankara may have a “general agreement” on a Syria safe zone, as Jack Detsch reports, it will likely take US President Donald Trump to close the deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Despite US Syria envoy James Jeffrey’s progress in talks with his Turkish counterparts on a safe zone, Erdogan does not appear close to signing off. The Turkish president is frustrated and embittered by US support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the militia of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which forms the core of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and by Washington’s ultimatum on Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 Russian missile defense system. 

On Wednesday, Erdogan slammed US support for the Kurds, saying, “There is no need for me to say what are behind terrorist organizations. There is YPG/PYD in northern Syria. Aren’t they PKK’s extension? Who gives them the biggest support? Our strategic partner. Did they send thousands of truckloads of weapons, ammunition and everything there? They did. What else should we talk about?”

With regard to Turkey’s purchase of the S-400, Erdogan said it is “finished” and that delivery will take place next month. If so, Turkey is likely to face sanctions that even Trump can’t prevent.

There remains, however, one key ray of hope for the two NATO allies to patch things up: the strong personal connection between Erdogan and Trump, as we discuss here. It was after a phone call with Erdogan in December 2018 that Trump decided to withdraw US troops from Syria.

The United States is eager to work with Turkey to break out of the impasse on the S-400. Acting US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Kathryn Wheelbarger told an Al-Monitor audience this week that if Turkey walks back the S-400 deal, the United States “would be seeking ways to protect the Turkish economy from any potential blowback,” as Jack Detsch reports. Metin Gurcan explains some of the options for a face-saving solution to the impasse.

The upcoming meeting between Trump and Erdogan at the G-20 in Osaka June 28-29 will be a bellwether of whether there is progress toward a deal on a safe zone and a workaround on the S-400. Erdogan knows he needs the United States, and his tough talk may in part be targeted to a domestic audience. But he also needs Russian President Vladimir Putin, as we discuss below. Meanwhile, policymakers are starting to question Turkey’s commitment to NATO, and that’s a bad sign for the alliance. US Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., tells Al-Monitor that “Erdogan is testing NATO’s patience,” reflecting widespread concerns by both Democrats and Republicans, Americans and Europeans, about Turkey’s relationship with Russia.

Long-suffering Idlib sees hope for Russian-mediated peace crumble

And that brings us to Idlib, where Russia mediated a shaky cease-fire, as Ayla Jean Yackley reports here, which is collapsing as we go to press.

Erdogan needs Putin to defuse the Syrian siege of Idlib. While he enjoys being the man in the middle, Putin is himself in a bind in Idlib. On the one hand, he backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s goal of retaking Idlib and crushing the armed opposition, terrorist and jihadist forces there. But he also does not want to provoke a mass exodus of refugees to Turkey, which already houses approximately 3.5 million displaced Syrians, as Maxim Suchkov reports. There are presently 3 million Syrians living mostly under the rule of the al-Qaeda-connected Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other jihadists and armed gangs. The UN has increasingly warned of the urgent humanitarian crisis in Idlib, and what one official termed the “brutal and gratuitous violence” suffered by children and innocents there.

The United States is not presently in a position to bail out Erdogan in Idlib. Although Trump tweeted on June 2 that Syria and Russia should stop the bombing, and the United States warned of possible repercussions for chemical weapons use by Syrian "bad actors," as Bryant Harris reported, US leverage is limited, and Erdogan is stuck with Putin as his go-to mediator.

Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense Wheelbarger remarked this week that "Turkey is learning, perhaps the hard way, that Russia cannot be relied upon to address its partners' interests."

Putin’s preferred endgame would be an understanding between Erdogan and Assad that would allow Syrian sovereignty over Idlib and some type of Turkish buffer or guarantees, as we wrote here. Erdogan may consider bargaining Tell Rifaat for Idlib, as Fehim Tastekin reports.

The relationship between Putin and Erdogan is what has so far kept a terrible situation from an even further disastrous spiral. But that relationship is being put to the test. Assad is a wild card, and the risks of escalation, intentional or not, remain dangerously high.

Turkish praise for Syrian jihadist ‘icon’

Fehim Tastekin reports on how Turkey’s lionizing of a hard-core jihadist, known for inciting the murder of Alawites and Shiites, reflects Ankara’s impasse in Idlib and Syria more broadly.

Abdel Baset al-Sarout, 27, who was killed earlier this month in a battle with Syrian government forces, was a “media icon” and commander in Jaysh al-Izza, a jihadist group backed by Turkey. He had been a soccer star in Homs before the war. In the early days of the uprising, he was known as the “singer of the revolution,” for his anti-regime songs, which gained him a substantial following in Syria, Turkey and the Arab world.

Sarout took a dark turn away from the democratic and popular resistance to the most brutal elements of the opposition. “At a 2012 opposition rally, he chanted, ‘We are all jihadis. Homs has made its decision. We will exterminate the Alawites. And the Shiites have to go,’” Tastekin reports.

Turkish authorities may have facilitated the funeral for Sarout, raising questions about the composition and nature of those groups that continue to be backed by Turkey.

“The factions that Ankara backs are often intertwined with al-Qaeda-linked groups on the Syrian battlefield,” Tastekin writes. “Erdogan has vouched for such groups, calling them ‘the Syrian National Army’ and even comparing them to Turkish groups that fought occupying Allied forces after World War I. Jaysh al-Izza is an example of the blurry line between ‘moderates’ and ‘radicals.’ And the stories of fighters like Sarout, who have earned adulation thanks to Erdogan’s policies, show how ‘moderate’ rebels are incoherently classified.”

Amid dramatically heightened tensions, Iran tanks Abe’s diplomatic mission

Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected Trump’s call for dialogue on Thursday, telling Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he does “not consider Trump, as a person, deserving to exchange messages with.”

Trump praised Abe for his effort, but tweeted on June 13 “that it is too soon to even think about making a deal [with Iran]. They are not ready, and neither are we!”

Al-Monitor can confirm that Abe brought up the release of US prisoners on behalf of Trump.

Khamenei’s dismissal of Abe’s mediation came as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for attacking two tankers, one of them Japanese, in the Sea of Oman. The United States convened a meeting of the UN Security Council on Thursday to address Iran’s military escalation in the Gulf.

Iran’s decision to shut down a diplomatic channel is bad news, especially for Iran, whose people are suffering under US sanctions aimed at squeezing the government. As we wrote last month, Trump’s offer of talks represented a “potential offramp, even if a risky one,” and that if Iran did not respond, “the moment for diplomacy might pass. Trump’s patience may be tested, and the slight cracks that we see in the US approach to Iran could close as quickly as they have been revealed.”

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