Turkish President Recep Erdogan (C-L) and US Vice President Mike Pence (C-R) met in Ankara on Oct. 17, 2019
The extraordinary US overture to Turkey regarding northern Syria resulted in a joint statement on Thursday, whose ramifications can be rated only in the fulness of time, as several intersecting tracks are running.
The US objectives range from Trump’s compulsions in domestic politics to the future trajectory of the US policies toward Syria and the impact of any US-Turkish rapprochement on the geopolitics of the Syrian conflict.
Meanwhile, the US-Turkish joint statement creates new uncertainties. The two countries have agreed on a set of principles — Turkey’s crucial status as a NATO power; security of Christian minorities in Syria; prevention of an ISIS surge; creation of a “safe zone” on Turkish-Syrian border; a 120-hour ceasefire (“pause”) in Turkish military operations leading to a permanent halt, hopefully.
The devil lies in the details. Principally, there is no transparency regarding the future US role in Syria. The Kurds and the US military will withdraw from the 30-kilometre broad buffer zone. What thereafter? In the words of the US Vice-President Mike Pence at the press conference in Ankara on Thursday,
“Kurdish population in Syria, with which we have a strong relationship, will continue to endure. The United States will always be grateful for our partnership with SDF in defeating ISIS, but we recognise the importance and the value of a safe zone to create a buffer between Syria proper and the Kurdish population and — and the Turkish border. And we’re going to be working very closely.”
To be sure, everything devolves upon the creation of the safe zone. Turkey envisages a zone stretching across the entire 440 kilometre border with Syria upto Iraqi border, while the US special envoy James Jeffrey remains non-committal, saying it is up to the “Russians and the Syrians in other areas of the northeast and in Manbij to the west of the Euphrates” to agree to Turkey’s maximalist stance.
Herein lies the rub. Jeffrey would know Ankara will never get its way with Moscow and Damascus. In fact, President Bashar al-Assad told in unequivocal terms to a high-level Russian delegation visiting Damascus on Friday, “At the current phase it is necessary to focus on putting an end to aggression and on the pullout of all Turkish, US and other forces illegally present in Syrian territories.”
Is there daylight between Moscow and Damascus on this highly sensitive issue? Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s forthcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on October 22 may provide an answer.
Clearly, the US hopes to wrench Turkey from the Russian embrace. Moscow’s studied indifference toward the US-Turkish cogitations betrays its uneasiness. Conceivably, Erdogan will expect Putin to take a holistic view, weighing in carefully Russia’s flourishing and high lucrative economic and military ties with Turkey and the imperative to preserve the momentum of the overall Russia-Turkey relationship.
But Trump has accommodated Erdogan’s top priority to create a safe zone and run it under Turkish supervision, which implies an open-ended Turkish military presence in a swathe of Syrian territory as big as Greece or Nepal. Erdogan’s tone has already changed in regard of his expectations from Putin.
In a meaningful remark on Saturday, he said, “In the area of the operation are forces of the (Syrian) regime under Russia’s protection. We will be tackling the issue with Mr. Putin.” Erdogan then added that in case he fails to “reach agreements on that issue (with Putin), Turkey will be implementing its own plans.”
If the US policy in Syria in recent years promoted the Kurdish identity, it has now swung to the other extreme of stoking the fires of Turkish revanchism. This is potentially catastrophic for regional stability. The heart of the matter is that while Turkey’s concerns over terrorism and the refugee problem are legitimate, Operation Peace Spring has deeper moorings: Turkey’s ambitions as regional power and its will to correct the perceived injustice of territorial losses incurred during the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.
The ultra-nationalistic Turkish commentator (and staunch supporter of Erdogan) İbrahim Karagül wrote this week in the pro-government daily Yeni Safak:
“Turkey once again revived the millennium-old political history on Anatolian territory. It took action with a mission that will carry the legacy of the Seljuks, the Ottomans, the Republic of Turkey to the next stage… It is not possible to set an equation in this region by excluding Turkey – it will not happen. A map cannot be drawn that excludes Turkey – it will not happen. A power cannot be established without Turkey – it will not happen. Throughout history, both the rise and fall of this country has altered the region… the mind in Turkey is now a regional mind, a regional conscience, a regional identity. President Erdoğan is the pioneer, the bearer of that political legacy from the Seljuks, the Ottomans, and the Turkish Republic to the future.”
Trump is unlikely to pay attention to the irredentist instincts in Turkish regional policies. Trump’s immediate concerns are to please the evangelical Christian constituency in the US and silence his critics who allege that he threw the Kurds under the bus or that a ISIS resurgence is imminent. But there is no way the US can deliver on the tall promises made in the joint statement.
Besides, the Kurds have influential friends in the Pentagon. (See the article by Gen. Joseph Votel, who was the chief of the US Central Command until recently, titled The Danger of Abandoning our Partners.) Nonetheless, the main outcome will be that Turkey feels it has western support for its long-term occupation of Syrian territory.
All in all, it’s a “win-win” for Erdogan insofar as he got what he wanted — US’ political and diplomatic support for “the kind of long-term buffer zone that will ensure peace and stability in the region”, to borrow the loaded words of Vice President Pence. A Turkish withdrawal from Syrian territory can now be virtually ruled out. State secretary Mike Pompeo added at the press conference in Ankara on Thursday that there is “a great deal of work to do in the region. There’s lots of challenges that remain.”
Pompeo said Erdogan’s “decision to work alongside President Trump… will be one that I think will benefit Turkey a great deal.” Arguably, US expects Turkey’s cooperation to strengthen its strategy in Syria (and Iraq) where it seeks to contain Iran’s influence. From Ankara, Pompeo travelled to Jerusalem to brief Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel indeed has been a staunch ally of “Mountain Kurds” in modern history.