Turkey, US go back to where it all started in Syria
On the same day a high-level delegation led by John Bolton, the United States national security advisor, will hold talks in Ankara on Jan. 8, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will embark on a massive Middle East tour that includes all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, along with Jordan and Egypt.
What makes Pompeo’s “Arab tour” even more significant is the fact that it follows a sudden decision by U.S. President Donald Trump on the withdrawal of all troops from Syria and that it covers 6+2 countries that allegedly make the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), dubbed the “Arab NATO.”
One of the messages to be conveyed by Pompeo will clarify that the decision to pull out troops from Syria does not mean the U.S. is fully leaving the Middle East and is abandoning its anti-Iran policy in the region. Pompeo will also explain to Arab leaders that the withdrawal will be a slow and coordinated one so that no political vacuum is created.
Apart from this short-term agenda, Pompeo will surely discuss how all these oil-rich GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and military power Egypt would do more in terms of stabilizing the Middle East, in line with Trump’s long-standing demands.
The U.S. president has a number of times reiterated that he no longer wants to spend money and send troops to deal with conflicts in other corners of the world where regional powers can handle them instead.
A summit to bring about the MESA countries is still being planned for the first quarter of 2019, reports suggest. (Having said that, it should be seen whether the U.S. will be able to persuade Saudi Arabia to lift the blockade on Qatar before a summit is held.)
Needless to say, Pompeo’s visit to the Middle East will be very carefully followed by Turkey.
All these messages Pompeo is expected to deliver in Arab capitals need to be assessed together with the latest and sharp statements from top U.S. officials over potential Turkish military actions inside Syria.
Pompeo mentioned measures to prevent Turkey from “slaughtering” the Kurds on Jan. 4, while Bolton stressed on Jan. 6 that the U.S. will condition its pullout from Syria on a Turkish assurance that the Syrian Kurds will be safeguarded.
So, while Bolton, the special Syria representative of the State Department and special coordinator in the fight against ISIL James Jeffrey, and Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the joint chief of staff, will be holding talks in the Turkish capital with their counterparts over the said condition in regards to the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, Pompeo will launch a new effort to form a new alliance with other regional heavyweights.
Although this tour of Pompeo is believed to not have plans to facilitate forces from these 6+2 countries going into Syria at this stage, there are, however, those who do not rule out such an option in the coming period.
After all, the U.S. decision to slow down the withdrawal will pave the way for Washington and Pentagon to think over with whom they should work to ensure that U.S. priorities would be met.
From the Turkish perspective, the U.S. should first clarify what they mean when they say “Kurds?”
If it’s about civilian Kurds that have never been involved in terrorism that would be fine for Turkey.
But if it’s about the protection of the YPG terrorists, even under the umbrella of the SDF, Turkey’s approval on such a deal would either be a huge surprise or a drastic change in policy. Yet there is no sign that Turkey will soon change its policy.
Furthermore, the recent intense mobilization of the Turkish army along the eastern strip of the Turkish-Syrian border shows that a cross-border operation with the task of eliminating terrorists seems imminent.
So much so that the penetration of the Turkish troops may start late Jan. 7 or early Jan. 8 as Bolton and his delegation will set foot in Ankara.
For those who can recall, Turkey had launched its massive Euphrates Shield Operation on Aug. 24, 2016, when former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was in town for official talks with the Turkish government on Syria.
In light of all these and with the initial waves of optimism regarding the U.S. withdrawal from Syria are now fading away, Turkey and the U.S. are going back to where it all started in Syria.