Since U.S. President Donald Trump announced the United States' intended withdrawal from Syria in December, what Turkey initially viewed as an opportunity has transformed into another crisis between the two NATO allies. For the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a U.S. withdrawal nominally presented Turkey with the opportunity to militarily eliminate the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara has long considered a terrorist organization, but which Washington has partnered with and relied upon to eradicate the Islamic State.
As it stands, the Syria question is not being approached from a strategic lens by either the Trump or Erdogan governments. Rather, it has warped into a policy issue which could be used satisfy domestic political constituents in both countries. For Trump, withdrawal is about pleasing his voter base by fulfilling a campaign promise to limit the United States' global military footprint and withdraw U.S. forces from foreign entanglements. For Erdogan, the attempt to militarily eliminate the YPG has always been more about presenting a strong stance against Kurdish insurgency than about any real national security threat emanating from the YPG. Overindulgence on domestic constituency considerations by Erdogan and Trump will likely allow the remaining elements of the Islamic State and other extremist groups in northern Syria to regroup over time and present new security challenges to both Turkey and other Western interests. Furthermore, efforts to please domestic constituencies will continue to embitter relations between the United States and Turkey, and allow further consolidation of Russian and Iranian interests in the Middle East.
To be clear, Erdogan does not object to a U.S. withdrawal from Syria. On the contrary, he welcomed the opportunity for Turkey to take on a role as a primary actor against the Islamic State even as it continues to rely on U.S. air power and intelligence to carry out the mission. What Turkey vehemently objects to is the position outlined Jan. 6 by White House national security adviser John Bolton, who declared that the United States would not pull out of Syria until Turkey guaranteed it would not attack the Kurdish fighters whom the United States considers partners in the war against the Islamic State. Trump made no such demand of Erdogan, who abruptly rebuked Bolton by stating that if this was indeed the U.S. position, it was a "serious mistake." Turkey's foreign minister went on to say that Turkey did not need to wait for the U.S. withdrawal before engaging the YPG and that final preparations were being made for a military operation — presumably one comparable to previous Turkish missions such as "Operation Euphrates Shield." Given that Trump and Erdogan had talked about the U.S. withdrawal without Trump making any demands of Turkey to safeguard Kurdish fighters, why would Bolton anger the Turks?
The most plausible scenario rests on the view that the policy interests of Bolton as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo differ from those of Trump. Both Bolton and Pompeo are known to be strong Iran hawks. While they do not openly challenge Trump's decision to pull out of Syria, they both have concerns about the manner and timeline of a withdrawal. An immediate withdrawal not only would embolden Islamic State units left in Syria but, more importantly, it would also leave Syria open to unchallenged Iranian and Russian influence.
It is almost certain that Syrian President Bashar al Assad is the victor of the Syrian civil war.
While Trump cares about telling voters that he has pulled American troops out of another costly foreign war, it would appear that Bolton and Pompeo have their sights set on the longer-term goals of limiting the influence of adversaries in the region and not burning partners who helped the United States degrade the Islamic State's presence and capacity. Parts of the Turkish press have gone as far as to suggest that members of Trump's Cabinet have pulled off a bureaucratic coup to supplant the president. As far-fetched as this scenario is, it nonetheless appears that the process of policy formulation in Washington has been compromised and that Cabinet members are formulating policies independent of Trump's desires.
Unclear Path Forward
In an op-ed published Jan. 7 in The New York Times, Erdogan said it was not Turkey's intention to kill Kurds. Instead, Erdogan said Turkey was only interested in eliminating extremist elements in Turkey, which not only presented a danger to Turkey directly, but also implicitly to the transatlantic alliance as a whole. In addition to the Islamic State, this interest also presumably applies to the YPG. Erdogan went on to say that Turkey would be interested and determined to ensure a representative group of elected councils is created and supported by a stabilization force to ensure Kurds have a say in the democratic governance of northern Syria.
All told, it is unclear how Erdogan intends to act going forward. In the event that U.S. forces pull out with or without safety guarantees for the Kurds, Turkey's ability to militarily intervene in Syria will almost certainly require the consent and approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even if this approval is negotiated, what does Turkey ultimately gain by waging a military campaign against the YPG, which presents no immediate national security threat to the country? In the immediate term, it would allow Erdogan to look strong to Turkish voters, who are increasingly finding it difficult to vote for Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, ahead of upcoming local elections in March. The medium- to longer-term consequences are either not being considered or, more likely, are being ignored for now.
It is almost certain that Syrian President Bashar al Assad is the victor of the Syrian civil war. As former Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen recently commented, al Assad has already started to gain the recognition of virtually the entire Arab world, and the Arab League is moving toward readmitting Syria. Turkey and Qatar are the only two regional powers outwardly choosing to not take this pragmatic stance. Would it not be easier and more fruitful if Erdogan tried to realize his security, economic and regional interests by engaging in direct dialogue with the existing government of Syria, instead of constantly battling diplomatically with the United States and Russia? This may be a policy track Erdogan eventually will adopt, especially if Turkey is to have any chance of taking advantage of the lucrative economic opportunities that will likely present themselves as Syria rebuilds once the war has finally ended.
For now, however, it is clear that both Erdogan and Trump see in Syria an opportunity to shore up their own domestic poll numbers. This will continue the process by which the United States and Turkey will gain suspicions about each other's intentions, and clear the path for further consolidation of Russian and Iranian influence in the greater Middle East.
A previous version erroneously referenced a U.S. withdrawal from Turkey as opposed to Syria. That has now been fixed.