Trump’s U-turn in Syria and Turkey

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January 8, 2019

President Trump’s surprise announcement of the withdrawal of US troops from Syria has ended up, unsurprisingly, in another U-turn.

On Sunday his national security advisor John Bolton said, “We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States at a minimum so they don’t endanger our troops, but also so that they meet the President’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered.”

And Mr Trump told reporters, “You have to remember, Iran hates ISIS more than we do if that’s possible.  Russia hates ISIS more than we do.  Turkey hates ISIS, maybe not as much as we do.  But these are countries that hate ISIS.  And they can do a little of the fighting in their neighbourhood also because we’re fighting them in their neighbourhood. But with that being said, we’re pulling out of Syria, but we’re doing it and we won’t be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone…”

Firstly, these remarks show that Ankara’s expression of pleasure over the announced pullout was hasty at best. The Trump White House is unpredictable and will remain so.

Secondly, they show that the Turkish government’s belligerent language on Syria is counterproductive and gives the impression that all we worry about is the PYD/YPG and ISIS is a secondary issue. Secretary Pompeo recently mentioned the importance of ensuring that “the Turks don’t slaughter the Kurds”. Such remarks are detrimental to Turkey’s interests.

Thirdly, beyond concerns regarding ISIS and Syria’s future, Western reaction to President Trump’s pullout announcement shows that Ankara is no longer popular with its NATO allies, that it has lost its appeal as a partner.

And lastly, John Bolton’s remarks coming only a day before his visit to Ankara and particularly coming from Israel were tactless and could only be read by Turkey’s leadership as an affront. Thus, it was obvious even before his arrival that his talks in Ankara were to prove confrontational. Contrary to the warm welcome extended by Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Erdogan chose not to meet him. Moreover, at the Justice and Development Party (JDP) parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday, he expressed strong disapproval of Mr Bolton’s remarks in Israel. He said that putting the PKK, the PYD/YPG and the Kurds in the same basket was wrong and reiterated Turkey’s determination to act against PKK, PYD/YPG and ISIS. One can safely assume therefore that the meetings held in Ankara did not break new ground.

Turkey regards the PYD/YPG an extension of the PKK and a terrorist threat. This has some history.

Starting in the mid-1980s Syria provided the PKK and its leader Ocalan with safe havens from where they launched terrorist attacks against Turkey across the 910-kilometre border. President Hafez al-Assad, the father, despite irrefutable evidence provided by Ankara over the years, denied support. Turkey’s patience finally ran out. In the fall of 1988, Turkey’s land forces commander issued an ultimatum on the Turkish-Syrian border saying that either Syria deported Ocalan or the Turkish army would move in. Hafez al-Assad immediately complied. On October 20, 1988, Turkey and Syria signed the Adana Agreement which was essentially a commitment by Damascus to end its support to terrorism.

On June 10, 2000, Hafez al-Assad passed away after thirty years as president. In a remarkable display of goodwill President, Ahmet Necdet Sezer went to Damascus to attend the funeral. This marked the turning of the page. With the coming to power of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) in 2002, Turkish-Syrian relations witnessed hitherto unseen warmth between Bashar al-Assad and JDP leadership.

With the Arab spring, however, President Assad became JDP’s archenemy. Today we have 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and the PYD/YPG across the border. So, while there is a lot of criticism to be directed at the government’s Syria policy, what is more, important at this juncture is to chart the way forward.

There is no denying that at present the Syrian conflict is Turkey’s major headache. However, to enhance its chances of putting the problem behind, Turkey must look beyond the narrow parameters of the conflict. Because, our bigger problem is the erosion of Turkey’s international image, its diminishing appeal. This is the result of a disastrous combination: the decline of Turkish democracy, economic mismanagement and our assuming a leading role in a misguided regime change project in Syria. In other words, while Syria is at the top of our current foreign and security policy agenda, we also have a broader problem to worry about.

The ideal way of reversing this negative trend and preparing for new regional confrontations would be a miraculous return to the democratic path. Beyond that, Ankara needs to:

  • Prioritize diplomacy and diplomatic language in addressing Turkey’s foreign and security policy challenges;
  • Resume diplomatic relations with Damascus;
  • Encourage all oppositions groups to make peace with the Assad regime and form a united front against ISIS;
  • Give military support to such a united front without committing Turkish troops;
  • Convince Washington in cooperation with Moscow that Damascus is in a better position than any other party to deal ISIS the final blow in Syria if that is indeed what Washington wants; and,
  • Let Damascus negotiate with its Kurds for Syria’s political transition;

Would this represent Turkey’s Syria policy of the last eight years coming full circle? Yes, it would but for a good cause.

Ali Tuygan, Ambassador (Ret’d) and former Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The article is also published on his blog: https://diplomaticopinion.com/2019/01/08/trumps-u-turn-in-syria-and-turkey/