Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a master of fiery rhetoric and more than a match for US President Donald Trump when it comes to delivering uncompromising, table-thumping speeches. However, unlike his Washington counterpart — who is more of a soundbite opportunist — the Turkish President’s timing and strategy on foreign affairs appears to be flawless.
It is no coincidence that Trump’s Vice President, Mike Pence, arrived in the Middle East on the same day that Turkey launched a military offensive against America’s Kurdish allies who’ve been operating on the Syrian-Turkish border for some years now. Erdogan is giving Pence a front row seat for a masterclass in Middle East foreign policy while showing the US how ineffectual and powerless it has become in the region.
Even Washington’s long-time friend King Abdullah II of Jordan warned Pence on Sunday that the US must “rebuild trust and confidence” as a result of the Jerusalem declaration made by Trump in December. The warning signs were there months ago, and while Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and declared intent of relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the city fuelled outrage and scorn from Ankara, Erdogan kept his powder dry, waiting for the right moment to strike out. In the meantime, Trump continued to surround himself with supporters of Israel even though what he should have been doing was talking to real experts on the region and not pro-Israel sycophants, who include the US Ambassador in Tel Aviv, David Friedman, a well-known supporter of illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The dramatic shift in US policy over Jerusalem prompted widespread protests by Palestinians and others in Muslim countries; this was to be expected. What wasn’t quite so predictable is that it also prompted global condemnation, including some from NATO countries and traditional US allies. America is slipping from the fold and becoming more isolated because of Trump’s failure to understand the region. Keeping a handful of tame Arab despots in his petro-dollar lined pockets is not going to buy him the sort of influence and power the US once enjoyed.
Over the weekend the Turkish military attacked US-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria despite verbal warnings from America. Few countries would be happy with the long-term occupation of land on its borders by 30,000 foreign troops, and Turkey is no exception. Nevertheless, the US expected the government in Ankara to sit back and do nothing about the growing Kurdish enclave in Syria known as Afrin.
It was thus inevitable — and blindingly obvious to all but the Trump administration — that Turkish ground troops would be mobilised. Over the weekend, 24 hours after an intense aerial bombardment, a ground incursion was launched by Ankara, called Operation Olive Branch. Quite how you can deliver an olive branch with air strikes, bombs and bullets is far from clear; in terms of incongruous military code names it’s up there with the ludicrous George W Bush administration’s “Operation Enduring Freedom” given to the 2003 invasion and war in Iraq. Erdogan’s strategically planned operation targeted 150 sites in the Kurdish-held land on Saturday afternoon.
The US-backed Kurdish militias replied by shelling the Turkish province of Kilis across the border; it looks as if all-out war has begun between Turkey and the so-called People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their political wing the Democratic Union Party (PYD). As far as Ankara is concerned, both are part of the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organisation that has fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.
Only a fool would have ignored the warning signs and yet today we see Turkey’s NATO allies expressing concern (and only thinly-veiled feigned surprise) at the military offensive. Ankara has repeatedly expressed its anger at the YPG’s expansion in northern Syria and questioned American involvement ever since the US started to give overt backing and arms to the group as it spearheaded offensives against Daesh in the region.
It appears that Trump has underestimated President Erdogan, believing naively that, as a NATO ally, he would simply fall in line with US-led foreign policy. The Turkish leader warned that he wouldn’t do this, and today he has shown himself to be a man of his word. The Afrin offensive came after a US announcement that it would train an army to patrol Syria’s borders that would include the YPG as a key component. This was despite assurances made personally to Erdogan by Trump a few months ago that the US would stop supporting the YPG.
Turkey is not a servile, colonially-oppressed entity willing to submit meekly to US or Western diktats. It intervened in the Syria war back in August 2016 to limit Kurdish expansion west of the River Euphrates, and while doing so it also drove out Daesh, which controlled key border towns.
In short, Trump and his generals (does he actually listen to them?) have driven Turkey to launch this unilateral military offensive in Afrin. What should be even more of a concern to NATO is that this has obviously been done with the blessing of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Surely it was obvious that if NATO countries were going to ignore Turkey’s dilemma someone else operating in the region — Moscow, for example — would step up to the plate.
One can only conclude that the US and NATO are becoming increasingly irrelevant not only in Syria but also in the Middle East as a whole. The region is reshaping its own landscape and the emerging powers now appear to be Russia, Iran and Turkey. Superficially, at least, this looks like good news for Bashar Al-Assad, the despotic leader of Syria, who is inching closer to the end of the seven-year war with a military victory in his favour.Again, the West has to accept some of the blame for this due to its clear misunderstanding of the region and resultant lack of action. More importantly, arguably accelerated by the arrogance and ignorance of the Trump administration, US influence is waning fast. A couple of years ago it would have been inconceivable for Turkish troops to join Syrian-backed rebels in attacking YPG forces armed by the US, but that is exactly what is happening today, and there is a groundswell of support from the Turkish people for Erdogan’s military offensive against his country’s age-old foes.
The Turkish President has warned that the Kurdish military presence is not only a threat to Turkey’s borders but also to the integrity of Syrian sovereignty. The land that the Kurds are occupying illegally, he insists, must be returned to Syria.
The US is calling on Turkey to halt its offensive, but while Ankara insists that it is still a reliable and dependable ally within NATO it is clear that its attack on the Kurdish forces in Afrin will not be stopped. While the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey is bound to cause concern within NATO, the organisation’s member states know that no country has done more to destroy Daesh and help Western intelligence against the terrorist group than Turkey.
Erdogan’s warnings and pleas have been ignored by his NATO allies for the past five years; this is coming back to haunt them as they are now powerless to intervene on behalf of the Kurds. France, meanwhile, is calling for an emergency session of the increasingly toothless UN Security Council but there is little positive that the UN can do — or has done — for the region.
Daesh has become an insignificant sideshow and Western policy has little or no impact on Middle East policy. Critics can, once again, point to the Trump administration as the cause of the breakdown. The US President’s announcement about Jerusalem, made despite the warnings given by Ankara and others, was obviously never going to help the situation.
Erdogan has thus just given Trump a bloody nose for trampling wholesale on the cultural and religious sensitivities of the Muslim world, and ignoring the all-too-predictable consequences of his chaotic foreign policy. Love him or loathe him, the Turkish leader is emerging as a regional power broker with friends in Moscow and Tehran while still maintaining the confidence of NATO. If Mike Pence and his advisers have any sense at all they will abandon their Middle East tour and head straight for Ankara. They could use the flight time to pray that President Erdogan will have the time and inclination to speak to them.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.