Turkey's safe zone in Syria does not look like a temporary 'fix'
A couple of weeks after Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch in Syria in 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called U.S. President Donald Trump. He informed Trump that U.S. weapons had been seized in tunnels dug by the YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, recognized by Ankara’s Western allies as a terrorist organization.
“The weapons that your Congress is refusing to sell to Turkey; we find them in the tunnels dug by the terrorists,” Erdoğan told Trump.
“Well, that way you got them for free,” the U.S. president replied.
The Turkish president has had ample opportunities to understand how Trump functions. He is not so much into grandiose political strategies. His God is money. Realizing that, the Turkish side fast became aware that they could lure Trump by trade; hence, came the target of increasing the bilateral trade volume to $100 billion from $20 billion, which would mean serious purchases from the United States.
But Trump does not function in a vacuum. He must deal with the different parts of the U.S. establishment, from Congress to the Pentagon.
In view of all of these, it is both easy and difficult to deal with Trump. Once you decipher his ultimate existence in life, it is easy; the difficulty, however, is that he can fast change his mind, whenever he sees it fit, and he won’t be bothered with consistency: He will say one thing today and another tomorrow. That’s why when you make a deal with “Washington,” you cannot trust Trump for its implementation.
The additional difficulty for Turkey is that even if it had Trump fully on the board, and even if there were no reasons for him to change his mind; those who are responsible on the ground to implement it are not on the board; among them is the U.S. military.
So, if the agreement that was reached between Ankara and Washington last week on the “situation” in northeast Syria were to continue to hold at the end of the 120 days, due to expire today, Oct. 22, Ankara will have to watch closely that Trump does not change his mind (or is not forced to change his mind) and that those responsible to implement it, do not drag their feet.
That is the challenge in the short term. In the long term, anything that is done despite the objection of the institutions in the United States are bound to create a headache for Turkey, especially in view of the loss of trust that exists between Turkish “state institutions” and U.S. institutions, which has kept growing since 2003 when the Turkish Parliament refused to let U.S. soldiers invade Iraq from Turkey.
When it comes to Russia, the disconnect in Washington between Trump and the “rest” does not exist in Moscow, so it is easier to deal with the Russian president. Vladimir Putin has no such hurdles; once he takes a decision, it gets implemented. But in contrast to Trump, it is much more complicated to lure him. First of all, money is not enough. Not that Turkey is not trying it through the purchase of the S-400s, for instance, but if Trump is not about grandiose strategies, Putin is all about grandiose strategies. Ankara must properly decipher Russia’s strategies to reach an understanding in Syria.
One of the components of Russia’s strategy is to increase the rift in the Western alliance with Turkey by showing more understanding to its security concerns in Syria. However, the Turkish public or the supporters of the government could have forgotten it; while the PKK is recognized as a terror organization by the U.S. and other NATO members, it has an office in Moscow. Russia will always keep the
“PKK” as a trump card in its hand. So, just as much as it has been a challenge to make the U.S. admit that YPG is the same thing as the PKK and that the YPG has to pull out from the border region, it might prove equally challenging to convince Russia that an agreement between the Syrian regime and the YPG over their respective military positioning in northeastern Syria will not be acceptable to Turkey. Turkey prefers the Syrian regime to take over the areas under YPG control.
But even if the Syrian regime were to take over, that would not come as a total relief for Turkey, which knows from experience how the Al–Assad regime had used the PKK against Turkey.
That’s why, in view of whichever international or regional force calls the shots in Turkey’s southern border with Syria, whether the U.S., Russia or Syria; due to the conviction that the PKK will always be used against Turkey, the so-called “safe zone” is set to remain as a permanent “solution” for “border security,” rather than temporary; if not for long term, at least, for midterm.