Why is Trump not talking Syria with Erdoğan?
According to a statement from the White House, U.S. President Donald Trump spoke to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Jan. 29 and convinced him on a project to establish safe zones in Syria and Yemen, two countries on Trump’s controversial recent ban list.
This is confusing for a number of reasons:
1- To create internationally protected safe zones in Syria, primarily to control the refugee flow in the civil-war hit country, is Turkey’s idea. (Its secondary aim was to let rebel groups get training to take responsibility for the ground protection of those areas.)
2- No refugees want to go to Saudi Arabia. In Turkey, on the other hand, there are more than 3 million refugees.
3- Saudi Arabia has no land border with Syria. Turkey, however, has a 910 km land border with Syria.
4- There is no existential threat from within Syria to Saudi Arabia. For Turkey, however, there are two existential threats from within Syria. One is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has killed more people in Turkey (excluding Syria) than anywhere else in the world over the past two years, (and Turkey has killed more ISIL militants in Syria than any other country). The other threat is the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian branch the Democratic Union Party (PYD), based along Syria’s border with Turkey, as a group demanding territory and sovereignty from Turkey, the borders of which are under U.S. guarantee through the NATO alliance.
5- Although the PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the U.S., the PKK and the PYD are under the same chain of command - from their headquarters in the Kandil Mountains of Iraq - sharing the same budget, arsenal and human resources. A former U.S. Defense Secretary even testified in the Senate that he knew of the organic link between the PYD and the PKK, yet picked the PYD as the U.S.’s ground partner against ISIL despite objections from Turkey and despite Turkey’s suggestions that the two allies could fight together against ISIL if the U.S. dropped the PYD.
6- Turkey is a member of the Western alliance NATO and a partner in over 15 international problems apart from Syria that Washington has to deal with at any given time - from Ukraine to Afghanistan, from Nagorno Karabakh to Gaza. The İncirlik air base, which is open to U.S.-led operations against ISIL, has been in use for military operations involving the U.S. for decades.
7- Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan said on Jan. 26 on his return from an official trip to Africa that he wanted to speak to Trump on urgent Middle East matters as soon as possible, on the phone if a face-to-face meeting would take too long.
However, since Trump was sworn in he made a number of telephone calls with world leaders, along with a face-to-face meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May, as the strategic partner of the U.S. As of the evening of Jan. 29, those who Trump has contacted over the phone included Vladimir Putin of Russia, Angela Merkel of Germany, Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel, Shinzo Abe of Japan, François Hollande of France, Malcolm Turnbull of Australia, Hwang Kyo-Ahn of South Korea, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates.
Fighting terrorism is one of Trump’s major priorities. That is why it is particularly confusing when you read that he agrees on the need to create safe zones in Syria, as a major source of terrorism in today’s world, without consulting the Turkish leadership.