Washington welcomes 2019 in a mood of depression
It is a rather gloomy holiday season in Washington this year.
In the last weeks of 2018, President Donald Trump has left several key institutions in paralysis with a string of hasty decisions and announcements on critical policy questions. Many people I know, who work for the government in the Trump era, feel depressed and desperate about their country’s direction. The daily conversations in Washington seem to sound a lot like our famous “mother land” themed ravings in Turkey.
Trump’s assertiveness to get sizeable allocations from the budget for his wall-to-be at the Mexican border sparked tensions with Democrats resulting in an extended government shutdown. His verbal attacks on the Fed for raising the interest rates hurt the stock market dramatically. Meanwhile he had already pushed the button for withdrawal of all the U.S. forces in Syria and half of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan despite strong resistance from the national security establishment.
The Pentagon and the CENTCOM have largely been running the show in Syria themselves without too much of an intervention partly due to Trump’s lack of both knowledge and interest in the Middle East.
The outgoing CENTCOM Commander Joseph Votel shared with his close circle that he feels ‘shocked and punched in the gut’ by Trump’s decision for withdrawal from Syria according to Jennifer Griffin of FoxNews.
The current mood at the CENTCOM reminds me of the famous advertising slogan, which suggested that “uncontrolled force is not force.”
The mood at the Pentagon has not been very Christmassy either. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who resigned to protest the President’s Syria decision, intended to leave at the end of February which might have allowed him to coordinate at least the first stage of the withdrawal and to get his people ready for the next phase. However, high appraisal of Secretary Mattis by the American media as ‘a heroic figure standing up against a reckless president’ drove Trump out of his senses. He retaliated by announcing that the departure date for Mattis was in fact Jan. 1!
In Washington’s political circles, Mattis was often referred to as “the last adult in Trump’s Situation Room.” With his departure, the total number of officials who were fired by Trump or left because they could not stand Trump hit 41. In an intellectually deserted White House, National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton seems to be left as the only one who is somewhat sticking to operate within the parameters of the U.S. state tradition.
To the best of my recollection, Turkish officials chafed at Bolton’s appointment since he was famous as a hawk with close ties to some known Islamophobes in the U.S. society. Now with the departure of other key interlocutors in the Trump administration, Ambassador Bolton is emerging as an imperious partner for Ankara. It is worth noting that he was the cheerleader of ”We must stay in Syria as long as Iran is” camp.
As a matter of fact President Trump made clear that personally he could not care less about who would fight against whom in Syria after the U.S. troops will have left.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s consistent complaint of the U.S. position in Syria prompted his urge to leave the Syrian theater once and for all. Now along with an unfitting ‘American victory’ narrative, he also claims Erdoğan had willfully taken over the job of knocking the remnants of ISIL down in Syria.
Indeed, nobody in Washington yet has a clear idea of how the withdrawal will be executed. When they first heard that President Trump had ordered the withdrawal from Syria following the famous phone call with President Erdoğan on Dec. 14, the generals supposed they could organize a rather slow withdrawal that might take 18 to 24 months. According to the U.S. officials with field expertise, that was the necessary time needed for a withdrawal that could secure at least some of the U.S. gains. Though President Trump insisted on a 30-day calendar. Then the State Department started talking about a 60 to 100 day calendar. The truth is everything is yet to be determined through talks with Ankara.
One crucial question ahead for the U.S. is whether Erdoğan will still go ahead with his plans of launching a major military campaign against the YPG in the east of Euphrates.
Ankara already announced to defer the operation due to the new conditions, which emerged with Trump’s order for withdrawal of the U.S. troops in Syria. Through a series of diplomatic contacts following the phone calls between Trump and Erdoğan, Americans seem to have gathered that Ankara might in fact be open to more creative options than a major ground operations to push the YPG down from the Turkish border.
Washington might try and stay in the picture diplomatically for re-structuring of Rojava if they reach a common ground with Turks in the negotiations ahead. Americans will likely put all their weigh in to avoid a Turkish military operation on Rojava which they believe might trigger a major Arab-Kurd war with unavoidable consequences over Turkish-U.S. ties.
Shortly in 2019, Syria will keep on being one of the key determinant factors for the state of play for Washington and Ankara.
Wishing everyone a happy new year with an ardent desire for not talking or writing about wars anymore.