PYD offensive or taking over ISIL?
Turkey started flashing signals that it might soon enter northern Syria. Particularly after reports that the American military has left the region, Turkey is expected to start the operation “from land and air” and mobilize the military elements in the region, yet ambiguity continues on where is the “red line,” which the Turkish and American presidents agreed on during their last telephone conversation.
While according to Trump, he “agreed” to hand over the “responsibility” of fighting ISIL in Syria to the Turks, Turkey perceived the development as a “go-ahead” to enforce its national security from threats emanating from the Syrian wing of the clandestine PKK (PYD/YPG) separatists. But a social media message by Trump blurred the atmosphere. He threatened to destroy (again) the economy of Turkey if it went “off limits.” Later, clarifying what he indeed wanted to mean with his “off limits” tweet, Trump said Turkey should “not do anything outside of what we would think is humane.” The American leader also underlined that Turkey would face “big trouble” if “any of our people get hurt.”
Was Trump trying to soothe his opponents at home that with his decision to withdraw American troops and clear the way for a Turkish operation, the United States betrayed once again the Kurds?
Last time Trump used such an angry rhetoric against Turkey – when Turkey was withholding Andrew Brunson, a U.S. pastor that Ankara accused of belonging to the FETÖ network and supervising CIA operations -- he raised tariffs on some Turkish products and imposed sanctions on top officials. As a result, the Turkish economy suffered seriously, and the Turkish Lira plummeted sharply against the dollar and most other currencies, losing almost 50 percent of its value. The “I did it, I can do it again” message from Trump must be perceived as a very serious threat against Ankara particularly at a time when the worsening economic situation has started to seriously erode the popularity of the president and his Justice and Development Party.
Again, from Trump’s social media messages, it became clear that Turkey might engage with a far bigger threat than the PYG as thousands of ISIL militants and their families (according to Trump, around 60,000) will be left to be dealt with by the Turkish military, very much like the Idlib trap the country was pulled into.
Trump might have difficulty in convincing even his own Republicans that he clearly laid down the limits of the Turkish operation in northern Syria and the Turks understood well the cost of going off-limits, but at the end of the day, Ankara cannot engage with the northern Syria problem with a “romantic” mentality. If the cost of eradicating the PKK-related northern Syria threat requires – as is apparent from the remarks of Trump – taking over the responsibility of fighting ISIL, perhaps Turks must be prepared for the probable collateral impacts of the fight against two terrorist groups at the same time.
Could Turkey indeed manage to create, as Erdoğan has been repeatedly stressing, a 30-kilometer-deep “safe zone” that would provide Turkey’s security on the one hand, while at the same time provide a sufficiently secure area to settle at least half of the over 4 million Syrian refugees? Would Syrian refugees be willing to settle in that area? Could they be subjected to a forced resettlement program? Those and related issues are too ripe to be discussed now, but in any case, Turkey will surely have very serious headaches if it undertakes a compulsory resettlement program.