The right address of Trump’s words
To those who might rejoice from a potential new crisis between Washington and Ankara over Syria following the reciprocal tweets from both capitals, one should warn that it might be too early to become joyful.
At least this is what some of the Turkish business circles with close contacts in Washington seem to think. According to them, U.S. President Donald Trump has decided to pull out American soldiers from Syria. Facing internal opposition, he is using a rhetoric that might anger Turkey, but is designed to silence the internal opposition.
This might well be the case.
It looks like there are still some who are betting their horses on Trump backing down from his decision. That hope might rest on the general impression that Trump has taken a surprise decision to pull out from Syria.
But looking at Trump’s pre-election statements, one can see easily that he is not fond of keeping U.S. troops abroad, especially in the Middle East.
One can also come across several articles suggesting that Pentagon and the State Department were tasked to plan for the eventual withdrawal early last year. So the issue was not about “if” the U.S. will pull out of Syria, but about “when.”
It appears that the U.S. establishment had difficulty in convincing Trump for the necessity of keeping U.S. troops in Syria. Finishing the “job of finishing ISIL” seems to be the only argument that bought some time for those in Washington who wanted the continuation of a military presence in Syria. But once Trump was convinced that the job on ISIL was nearly done, and once he outsourced the mission of dealing with the remnants to Turkey, it was high time to deliver his election promise.
Indeed, according to a Foreign Policy article published on Jan. 4, which reported that the relevant bodies in the administration were instructed to plan the withdrawal as of April, even Defense Secretary James Mattis was saying “there really wasn’t much of ISIS [ISIL] left to fight.”
Another article from the New Yorker published last November argued “it might make sense for Trump to simply declare victory against the Islamic State and walk away… except Iran.”
Indeed, with a defeated ISIL out of the way, containing Iran could have been the only valid argument to justify a “strong military” presence. After all, Trump is nearly the most anti-Iranian and pro-Israeli president that the U.S. has seen in its recent history.
While Trump has decided to weaken the Iranian regime through economic embargos, he might think that having a presence in Iraq as well as Israeli forces actively deployed on the Syrian border might be sufficient. In addition, he can easily push back Israeli pressure, saying he does not have to prove he is Israel’s best ally after all he had done especially on the issue of Jerusalem. So despite criticism from Turkey that the U.S. is dragging its feet, Trump looks decided on his wish for a Syria withdrawal.
When it comes to the Kurdish issue…
If he can push back the Jewish lobbies, it would be inconceivable to think he would care more about the Kurds.
It is not difficult to imagine that ever since Trump declared his decision, all the pro-Kurdish and anti-Turkish lobbies were mobilized to reverse this step. Trump’s threat to devastate the Turkish economy if Turks “were to attacks Kurds in Syria” is probably a message to those lobbies. But it should also be read as a message to Turkey to be careful in all the action that it will take east of the Euphrates.
Ankara tried to alleviate the concerns by giving White House National Security Adviser John Bolton a dossier on the Turkish help to Kurdish populations in Iraq and Syria. But it requires more than handing a dossier to Bolton (who might have as well hide it from Trump) to help Trump face the pressure on him.
In that sense, two developments are noteworthy. The first is Iraq’s Kurdish President Bahram Saleh’s official visit to Ankara just ahead of Bolton’s visit. The second is the decision to allow jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan to meet with his brother. Öcalan met with his brother last weekend for the first time in more than two years.