The Pause


On 17th October, Turkey and the US agreed that the Turkish side will pause Operation Peace Spring in order to allow the withdrawal of YPG from the safe zone within 120 hours. They also concurred that the operation would be halted upon completion of the withdrawal. The announcement of the agreement was followed immediately by a discussion in the US as to whose “victory” it was.

While this discussion is very much related to the political chaos in Washington, it also says something about the state of relations between Turkey and the US.

Western countries have been strongly critical of Turkey’s incursion. Yes, Turkey’s democratic decline, its aggressive diplomatic language of recent years, if one may call it that, and its confrontational attitude toward friend and foe have greatly diminished Ankara’s appeal as a partner. The incident involving Turkish security agents and demonstrators in front of the Turkish Embassy in May 2017 negatively impacted US public opinion.

Nonetheless, Western criticism of the incursion bordering on outright hostility wasn’t entirely expected and will leave a lasting imprint on Turkey’s relations with the West to Moscow’s delight. And, as the West vents its anger, Turks will continue questioning the long-term perspective of its traditional allies regarding the Middle East landscape, in particular their commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic as reflected in UN Security Council resolutions.

The Turkish-American joint statement on northeastern Syria states the following:

“The US and Turkey reaffirm their relationship as fellow members of NATO…”

“Turkey and the US remain committed to protecting NATO territories and NATO populations against all threats with the solid understanding of “one for all and all for one”.

In the meantime, House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, an architect of the US invasion of Iraq, is fighting for a ban on US arms sales to Turkey. So, those who drafted the joint statement could have been wiser to reserve such wording for better days, hopefully in the not too distant future. Unfortunately, greater the distance between the West and Turkey, greater is the distance between Turkey and democracy.

The other interesting dimension of this withdrawal-incursion-pause episode of the Syrian conflict is the debate in Washington, again is characterized by the political chaos in Washington. Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, for example, has said she told President Trump that Russia has been trying to get a foothold in the Middle East and his troop withdrawal gives them an opening as Kurds reach out to Russians for support.

The New York Times reported that there are other winners in addition to Mr. Erdogan. It said, “Chief among them is President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who gains vast influence in a strategic corner of the Middle East where, until 2015, he had almost none. Now, he is a player, and already is filling the territorial and political vacuum that Mr. Trump left after he agreed to get out of the way of the Turkish invasion of Syria, which a small contingent of American Special Operations forces were there to prevent by their very presence.”

Russia getting a foothold, in Syria? Territorial and political vacuum?

Damascus has enjoyed a close relationship with Moscow for decades. In the mid-1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher paid two dozen visits to Damascus but was unable to move father Assad. These were tough times for Russia. However, promising to rebuild a weakened Russia, Putin easily won the March 2000 elections and Russia gradually re-emerged as a global power. In 2003 the US and the UK invaded Iraq under false premises. The Arab spring and West’s regime change project in Syria, in which Ankara unfortunately assumed a leading role, convinced Russia that there was no way it could give up it’s one and only foothold in the Middle East. Yet, one should admit that, regardless of differences elsewhere, Russia is West’s strongest ally in the fight against the Islamic State. And whether one may like it or not, Russia has a consistent, well-balanced, focused and result-oriented diplomacy as opposed to disarray in the West.

The pause is a positive development. It at least gives the parties an opportunity to assess the current state of affairs and how to deal with the possibility of the Islamic State making a comeback.  Whether it will hold or not remains to be seen, perhaps beyond the frame of 120 hours. If it does, one would then need to look at the position Russia would take and the advice it would offer Ankara and Damascus in managing the incursion.

Ali Tuygan, Ambassador (Ret’d) and former Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The article is also published on his blog.