In Northern Syria, Sleepwalking into Conflict or Trump Bluff?
A Month of Confusion Between “Economic Threat” and “Cooperation” Among Allies.
Over the past four years, Turkey and the U.S. mutually teetered on the collision course in northern Syria as they had competing agendas and divergent views of a Kurdish militia aligned with the U.S. troops. But they somehow managed to control the course of things from getting worse. This time, it may not be the case.
Last month, both countries unscrupulously showed signs of sleepwalking into a conflict that everybody would terribly regret. President Donald J. Trump threatened to slap Turkey with economic sanctions if the Turkish military targeted Kurdish-dominated Syrian Defense Forces (SDF). At the core of the contention lies Turkey’s push toward SDF-held Manbij where the U.S. special forces are currently deployed. But Trump’s earlier decision in December of last year to withdraw the U.S. troops was interpreted as ceding ground to rival forces, such as Russia and Iran, triggering an impassioned debate over the nature of U.S. military endeavor in Syria and potential perils rooted in its unexpected pullout.
The American withdrawal would also remove the checks on the Turkish forces who would now unrestrainedly push forward in its longstanding quest to crush Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which forms the command structure of SDF, in Manbij. To scotch that possibility, the U.S. demands guarantees from Ankara that it would not attack its Kurdish allies once the U.S. troops leave Syria. But that seems a slender hope if the Turkish leadership’s public remarks have indicated anything so far.
The ever-widening discord threatened to further escalate after U.S. President Trump, in a tweet, vowed to destroy Turkey economically, if Ankara attacks Kurdish allies. The language appeared to be Trumpian as ever and leaving experts to gauge and measure the seriousness of his threat. Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), questioned the wisdom of such crude rhetoric against an ally. Trump’s threatening remarks, as before, sent lira tumbling against the dollar.
Ibrahim Kalin, spokesperson and advisor of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, rebuffed the U.S. president. Turkey, Kalin pledged, would never relent fighting the terrorist groups, lumping together DAESH, PKK, YPG, PYD under the same rubric in line with Ankara’s official view of all groups.
Trump created another confusion about his hint of a safe zone in northern Syria. The idea was long relished and clamored by Turkey, only to no avail after Washington and other Western allies appeared reluctant to be embroiled in a mission creep, fraught with the risk of an inadvertent larger conflict with other powers such as Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime.
Yet, less than 24 hours after Trump’s threat for economic sanctions came another, stunning turnaround. John Bolton, National Security Advisor to the U.S. president, boastingly tweeted that Trump and Erdogan held a constructive phone talk. He also exhibited the U.S. commitment to its Kurdish allies in the same tweet. In the intervening days, this produced a lack of diplomatic comity and cold welcome when he landed in Ankara to discuss the issue with the Turkish leadership.
Safe Zone: Contested History of an Idea
More crucially, Erdogan and Trump, during the January phone call, also contemplated the idea of a possible safe zone in northeastern Syria. The proposal has a sorry history. During the second term of the Obama administration, the Turkish Foreign Ministry, then under the stewardship of Ahmet Davutoglu, had long been champion of a buffer zone or a safe zone to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of the Syrian refugees, an issue that began to test Turkey’s infrastructure and capabilities. Obama, for his part, was reticent against a new entanglement in another Middle Eastern conflict. He refused to be hooked by the Turkish proposals of any sort. Since then, the Turkish plan has gained little traction.
For all the odds and complexities, Turkey has never abandoned the idea but failed to get its allies on the board. The shifting geopolitical realities on the ground forced Ankara to take the matters into its own hand. In 2016, the Turkish forces forayed into northern Syria in a race with the Kurdish militia to take over Islamic State-held Jarablus, a small town on the Syrian-Turkish border. The character and nature of Turkey’s military intrusion and the content of the safe zone took a completely new meaning in the evolving war context. The central staple of Turkey’s new policy was then to blight the Kurdish aspirations to connect separate cantons it held in northwestern Syria. The formation of a statelet on the southern side of the border was anathema to Ankara. It still is.
Trump’s threat in January appeared to be a mirage, something that reflects the disconnect between the real world and Trumpism, which has been characterized by ever-shifting positions, fluctuating between two extreme points, sudden reversals, transactional and impulsive management style. And many of those currents were simultaneously in place in that remarkable reversal that happened in less than a day. The president’s fondness in surprising allies and foes may, to the astonishment of Trump experts, pull off some occasional triumphs on diplomatic plane. But it does not work every time. His sudden change in the recent case only reveals Trump’s misjudgment and miscalculation of his rival, President Erdogan, and the complicated nature of mutual interdependence between the two allies.
Regardless of the recent drama, the war of words was not new on Ankara-Washington front. Last summer, Trump upped the ante in a bid to secure the release of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson who remained in pre-trial detention in Turkey for nearly two years. The economy emerged as a key stick in a pool of options for Trump to step up the pressure. It worked. The tumbling lira against the U.S. dollar galvanized Erdogan’s core supporters against an “international plot” to weaken the Turkish economy, but in the end, it forced Ankara to budge its position regarding the imprisonment of the pastor. The political interference in the judicial process was never so subtle in the post-coup era, yet the whole legal travesty around the pastor played out openly in front of the public. Trump’s bravado was enough to stir up Turkey’s wobbly economy and change its policy course.
Yet, his latest unexpected shift appears more of a detriment than a boost to the U.S. deterrence and credibility. If Trump insisted a little more, things might have been different. As local elections loom, the Turkish president has no stomach to endure another free-fall of the lira against the U.S. dollar. But, Trump’s backsliding landed a windfall on Erdogan’s score chart, boosting his tough-guy image among his fervent supporters.
The Turkish leader long telegraphed Turkey’s intention to march toward Manbij in a bid to strong-arm the U.S. administration to move its troops out of the town. The display of brinkmanship by both Erdogan and Trump risks a possible uncontrollable escalation of events on the ground. Trump’s economic threat and Erdogan’s ‘Ottoman slap’ remarks are mutual examples of an imprudent and unscrupulous approach to diplomacy to sway the other’s side position. As the line between discourse and policy grows fuzzier in the age of Trump and Erdogan, the distinction between bravado and seriousness becomes difficult to be made. How to regulate impulsive leaders’ bizarre policy behaviors emerges as a monumental task for policymakers and advisors on both sides of the Atlantic.
Three weeks after the U.S. president first broached the safe zone plan, the Turkish side has grown frustrated over the lack of a clear action toward materializing Trump’s pledge. Erdogan did not mask his disappointment when he reminded his U.S. counterpart over failing to back up his words with deeds.
“There is no satisfactory plan that is put before us concretely yet,” the president said during a speech to his party fellows at a parliamentary meeting this week. “Of course we are loyal to our agreements, our promise is a promise. But our patience is not limitless,” Reuters quoted Erdogan as saying.
Seemingly, it is far from clear whether the Turkish leader’s public expression of exasperation would do something to budge Trump’s stance. But before resolving their different policy positions and incongruent views about northern Syria, both leaders urgently need to fix their hard-boiled and unscrupulous rhetoric to avoid further misunderstanding and risky escalation.