US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria and green light a Turkish military incursion in the north-east section of the country was greeted with dismay. It has even confounded those closest to him like Senator Lindsey Graham, one of his staunchest supporters. The Republican senator from South Carolina joined disgruntled members from his party and senior Democrats to denounce the president. Such was the outcry that a prominent leader of Trump’s evangelical base even invoked the wrath of God: “The president of the United States is in danger of losing the mandate of heaven if he permits this to happen,” said Pat Robertson.
Reckless, impulsive, treacherous were just some of the words used to repudiate Trump for the US withdrawal. The Kurds, who were trained and equipped by the Washington as part of the fight against Daesh and know a thing or two about broken promises having been let down several times by the West, said that it was “a stab in the back”.
Despite the outcry, few can be surprised by the launch of “Operation Peace Spring” the goal of which, according to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to “prevent a terror corridor being established on our southern border and bring peace and stability.” Ankara’s military incursion into Syria was inevitable from the moment former US President Barack Obama began arming militias that Turkey, a NATO ally, viewed as terrorists. His reluctance to directly engage militarily with Daesh made him turn to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), to the dismay of the Turks.
Trump’s decision to remove the security umbrella that had protected Syrian Kurds from any Turkish onslaught has always been a question of when and not if. He explained his decision by reiterating one of his main election promises saying “the worst mistake the US ever made was going into the Middle East, it’s a quagmire. We are up to close to $8 trillion and we’re bringing our folks back home.”
This is the same calculation behind Trump’s stance on Iran where, despite his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling the attack on Saudi oil facilities in September “an act of war”, the US President has carefully veered away from doing anything that would further escalate military confrontation. Trump, it would seem, takes his “America first” policy, which includes a commitment to his shrinking voter base not to start another war in the Middle East and bring back US troops, far more seriously than many give him credit for; including members of his own party.
Trump had already hinted – in December 2018 – of his intention to pull US troops out of Syria in a tweet saying: “We have defeated ISIS [Daesh] in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” Then, as now, he faced the same kind of push-back from the Pentagon’s top brass and some of his top officials who had sought to maintain the US’ military posture in the country until Iranian forces exited.
While Trump made an about-turn nearly a year ago after a number of high profile resignations in protests over his decision, the reasons for withdrawing US troops from Syria have remained the same. Keeping some 2,000 US troops in Syria following proclamations of victory over Daesh as Trump often does, made little sense if the reasons for their presence in the first place could be guaranteed through other means.
Erdogan, it would seem, has done enough to persuade his counterpart that Turkey can be that guarantor while at the same time dealing with its own domestic and security concerns. But this hasn’t prevented critics from saying that he is making the same mistake as Obama. The former president’s abandonment of Iraq in 2011 is believed by many to have opened the door for Daesh to rapidly take over large sections of Iraq and Syria. Iran also exploited the vacuum left by the Americans to consolidate its agents and empower its proxies in the region.
Such comparisons are tempting, but Trump presumably sees Turkey as the kind of security guarantor Obama failed to install before pulling out of Iraq. Ankara has been part of the global collation against Daesh, advancing its military operations against the terrorist group into Syrian territory in a major way in 2016. Trump’s willingness to back the Turkish plan is very much seen as a correction of Obama’s policy of arming the YPG, viewed by Ankara as betrayal. As far as the Turks were concerned, arming one terrorist group to defeat another terrorist group when a NATO ally is also in the thick of combat was always going to be counterproductive.
Trump must feel confident Erdogan is more than capable of ensuring that Daesh fighters are pegged back while Turkey deals with its own terrorist problem in the form of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian arm, the YPG. Faced with declining public support at home and under pressure to find a sustainable solution to the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, a safe zone in Syria to allow for the return of refugees has become a top priority.
For a populist leader like Erdogan, domestic setbacks can appear fatal. His popularity and future re-election suffered a major blow in June when the AKP lost the Istanbul mayoral election to the opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP). Following the crushing defeat, former President of Turkey Abdullah Gul and former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan split from their the AKP in order to form a new party. This came amid increased discontent with Erdogan’s party, which had overseen a downward-spiralling economy, military ventures in Syria, a tense foreign policy with the United States and its allies, and a refugee crisis that is raising public discontent and threatening to bring the long reign of the AKP leader to an abrupt and humiliating end.
A consideration that has not featured much is Turkey’s relations with Russia. Is it possible that Trump wants to put the brakes on Ankara’s drift away from NATO’s orbit towards Moscow, a trend that began to accelerate following the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey in 2015? It was seen as a pivotal moment in Turkey’s relation with its NATO allies. The failure of the western alliance to back a key member was seen as having isolated Turkey, marking the beginning of a period of frosty relations. Perhaps Trump saw this as being self-defeating especially with his “America First” agenda which leaves the US needing allies to stabilise conflicts in the Middle East more than ever in recent history. A quid pro quo with Erdogan has the potential to convince the Turkish president that his security and economic concerns lies with the west not Moscow.
Such a view is further strengthened by the news that Erdogan and Trump had finalised major new trade deals during July’s G20 Summit. The two leaders are said to have agreed to take the $75 billion trade volume between the two countries to $100 billion. During that meeting Trump – who’s demonstrated on more than one occasion his preference for putting the American economy and jobs above everything else – announced aspirations to quadruple trade with Turkey.
While the hard logic of politics and self-interest seen through the eyes of Trump sees no justification for keeping US troops in Syria, serious concerns remain over Turkey’s offensive in north-eastern part of the country. What will be the fate of Daesh prisoners and what does Turkey intend to do with them? Given that members of the YPG are very likely to put up a strong fight, can the Turks avoid civilian deaths and bring the military assault to a swift end? This is an opportunity for Turkey to rise to the challenge and bring stability to this corner of the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.