Back to square one in Syria
U.S. President Donald Trump had declared his decision to withdraw troops from Syria following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s statement on Dec. 12, 2018 that within a few days Turkey would militarily intervene in the east of Euphrates River in Syria. The words of withdrawal from Trump surprised everyone including members of his own administration.
After that, all the parameters and calculations regarding Syria changed immediately. The decision seemed clear and definite. Although many people in Turkey, including decision makers, were skeptical about the seriousness of the decision of Trump, a chance was given and Turkey halted operation plans to understand the situation.
Turkey waited for the Trump delegation for a face-to-face meeting until this week. The mission of Trump’s team, which included National Security Adviser John Bolton, Chief of Joint Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey, was to clarify the withdrawal plans. The delegation first stopped in Israel then flew to Turkey. Trump’s first intention was probably to calm the Israelis and provide security guarantees. The other goal was to discuss the details of a coordinated withdrawal plan with the Turks. But Bolton and his companions sabotaged the mission with their uncalculated statements against Turkey. Bolton especially angered Turkey by presenting the “protecting Kurds” argument, putting Turkey in a situation as though Ankara were a warmongering actor in Syria. Bolton emptied the commitments of his own president.
The mood of Bolton’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his “it’s also very important that as we discuss with members of the coalition, [and] other countries that have an interest, like Israel and Turkey, that we expect that those who have fought with us in Syria…particularly the Kurds” not be put in “jeopardy by the withdrawal” statement caused a negative reaction in Ankara.
Erdoğan reacted and did not want to meet with Bolton. Although the U.S. team met with their counterparts, meetings were barely fruitful. The visit revealed that the U.S. has no plan about the withdrawal and that American bureaucrats will resist Trump’s decision to leave Syria.
Bolton and his friends showed little sign of quitting former President Barack Obama’s and his generals’ short-sighted policy of supporting the YPG. This may have serious consequences for the U.S. in the region.
Turkey has witnessed promises made to it breached by the U.S. several times about the YPG issue during the last couple of years. The persuasion in Turkey in general is that Turkey is now facing a new attempt of distraction to halt a Turkish operation.
What will happen next? Will Turkey wait or start the operation? Erdoğan hinted that he is willing to move forward. He said he accepts the words of Trump as the reference for American attitude and repeated his famous phrase “we may come suddenly one night,” which he used before Olive Branch Operation.
As I mentioned in one of my previous columns, Turkey’s first move can be cleaning the cordon from the Turkish border to M4 motorway, 30 kilometers deep into Syria. Turkey can start operations in the east of the Euphrates from Tel Abyad town. The town is just opposite Akçakale and the local population is Arab. Turkey can launch a quick and successful operation there to underline its determination.
Trump seems to be under siege at the White House by his advisors and bureaucrats. He has difficulty in implementing his decisions. The president’s former chief strategist and one of his most controversial advisers, Steve Bannon touched on this issue when he resigned months ago. Turkey, by starting a military operation in Syria, also can help Trump break this siege.
Although we are back to square one in Syria now, the decision of Trump to withdraw from Syria is valid. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated this in Baghdad after Bolton and his colleagues went back to Washington from Syria. Some serious steps have already been taken. Defense Minister James Mattis, who opposed the idea, resigned. U.S. Special Envoy to the Global Coalition Fighting ISIL Brett McGurk quit from his position. These are important and concrete steps. Although Bolton’s mission turned to a diplomatic failure, Erdoğan and Trump can resolve the issue through direct dialogue.
Obviously whatever happens and whoever resists, the American endgame in Syria is inevitable. American interests in Syria are controversial. The price of losing Turkey is beyond what some people can imagine.
The Turkish army amassed troops and armed vehicles to the border for a reason. The Turkish military has deployed thousands of soldiers. They have not been sent there for a family vacation.
We have entered a time when the facts on the ground will define diplomacy. When the Turkish army moves, like it did in Afrin and in al-Bab, the U.S. will remember that Turkey is an asset, while the PKK-YPG is just a burden.
The policy of supporting the Marxist PKK-YPG is not realistic and sustainable. The organization is far from the hearts and minds of the local people. Those who suggest supporting the PKK-YPG in Syria have not learnt their lessons and understood the people of northern Syria well. The terrorist PKK-affiliated YPG cannot control the area and cannot provide stability in the region without a strong military support. They are not a legitimate political movement. They only produce cost. Their vision is oppressing people and their order is based on arms and fear. Trump has understood this. The resistance of the American bureaucracy to Trump’s withdrawal plan is not realistic and is meaningless.