The element of surprise in the US-Turkish-Syrian saga
Don’t call me so much from your heart’s deep.
I may show up suddenly one night.
If you are waiting for me and did not sleep,
I may die of joy before your door.
It is ironic that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been using the lyric of a very famous love song of Turkish classical music as a threat. And it is also ironic that this lyric suggests a surprise while simultaneously neutralizing any surprise by revealing the possibility of a surprise.
Apply this to Turkey’s intervention in Syria. No-one could say international and regional players in Syria were caught by surprise when Turkey started its military operation in Afrin.
Erdoğan used the lyric to warn friends and foes that a military operation would take place if they did not comply with Turkey’s wishes. Some might have thought the threat was a bluff. For others, only the timing has come as a surprise.
The real surprise for actors caught in the Syrian quagmire was a statement in mid-January from Colonel Thomas Veale, a spokesman for the Combined Joint Task Force. The statement said a “Syrian Border Security Force” with around 30,000 fighters was being established under Kurdish leadership of which the first 230 were already in training.
When the spokesperson for the international coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) makes such statement, one assumes a consensus has been reached among coalition members after consultations. But embassies in Ankara of some coalition-member countries have been wondering how they missed the consultation phase.
It appears there was not even a proper consultation within the U.S. administration. Or at least not on how to formulate the announcement of a permanent U.S. military presence in Syria to the press.
What came as a surprise to Europeans did not surprise the Turkish government. The U.S. being consistent with its rhetoric and policies in Syria would have been a real surprise.
From former U.S. President Barack Obama’s red lines being crossed to Donald Trump’s election promise of avoiding unnecessary wars in the Middle East, the U.S. has been consistently inconsistent.
Before leaving his post last October, former U.S. envoy to Ankara John Bass said American support to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was limited and tactical. Trump said last November that no more arms would be delivered to YPG.
Despite the rhetoric, the Turkish government saw it coming: Permanent U.S. presence in Syria with YPG as allies.
Time and again Turkey has objected to the U.S.-YPG alliance. With the latest PR disaster on statements about plans for permanent U.S. presence in Syria that triggered the Turkish military operation. Turkey/s move has hardly come as a surprise to Turkey’s European allies.
That was probably why there has been a very moderate reaction from Europe in the initial days of the operation.
Another reason for the mild reaction seems to be the fact that Europe and the U.S. does not share the same priorities in Syria. The U.S. priority is the defeat of the ISIL and containment of Iran in the Syrian theater. With the defeat of ISIL, Iran becomes a number one priority for the U.S., while the return of European jihadists to their country of origin remains issue number one for European capitals. And that means European capitals depend more on cooperation with Turkey than with Washington.
Second, containing Russia is a bigger priority than containing Iran, a country the U.S. and Europe do not agree on, especially regarding the nuclear deal with Tehran. U.S. policies pushing Turkey closer to Russia worries European leaders more than Trump, who is seeking warmer ties with Moscow.
So a credit of support has been extended to Turkey for its Afrin operation by its European allies. But this credit is not unlimited and unconditional. Let us see to what extent Turkey bears this in mind when planning future phases of the operation.