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Whether pulling the remaining U.S. troops from Syria turns out to be a bold and beneficial move or a stupid, harmful one depends on what Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will do. That, in turn, depends in no small part on what constraints he senses from President Trump—as well as from Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Here, to the best of my understanding, are the circumstances and the possible consequences of the president’s decision to withdraw from Syria.
Erdoğan had been menacing a military attack on the Kurds in Northeast Syria who, working with U.S. troops, are finishing the dirty work of killing off ISIS. The U.S military has been warning the Turks not to do that, at ever higher levels. But when Trump called Erdoğan to talk him out of attacking our troops’ partners, it seems that Erdogan simply talked him into removing our troops.
Departing Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s anger is understandable. The boss undercut him after, following orders, Mattis had given orders down the line, as well as his word to fellow fighters. National security advisor John Bolton, too, would have been dismayed: he and Trump had agreed that we owe the Kurds a lot, and that the Kurds south of Turkey’s border provide a natural barrier to a variety of enemies of America, not least Erdoğan. Bolton might well have resigned along with Mattis if Trump had merely bowed to Erdoğan. Whether Trump bowed or not depends on whether or not there is more to the story.
Erdoğan is America’ s enemy. As far back as 2003, he forbade use of Turkish ground and airspace for U.S. operations in Iraq, including the U.S. Air Force base at Incirlik. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, he has turned Turkey from a NATO ally into an Islamist dictatorship.
Neither wise nor competent, he aims to resurrect something like the Caliphate, with Ottoman Turkey its seat and himself as the Sultan in all but name. To this end, he supported the Brotherhood’s attempted takeover of Egypt, supports Hamas in Gaza, and a host of Sunni terrorist groups, in Syria as well. Only with Turkey’s active help was ISIS able to market the oil it got from Iraqi and Syrian fields, buy arms, receive recruits from abroad, etc. ISIS became more than a minor nuisance only because Erdogan provided it with a hinterland.
Erdoğan meant to use ISIS as the head of the Sunni spear to overthrow Syria’s Alawite (a version of Shia) regime. However, Erdoğan also opposes Sunni Saudi Arabia, mainly because he is financed largely by Qatar, which is in a very bitter quarrel with Saudi Arabia. In part because of Qatar, he believes he has some kind of understanding with Iran, though it is on the opposite side of the great Sunni-Shia war. He welcomed Russia’s intervention in Syria, though it brought Iranian influence to his southern as well as to his eastern border. Passionately anti-American and in disregard of Turkey’s secular geopolitical adversary relationship with Russia, he seems to be satisfied with Vladimir Putin’s de facto overlordship of the Middle East.
Making war on the Kurds at home and abroad, however, seems to be Erdoğan’s consuming passion. He revived restrictions on the Kurdish language, and renewed military raids on majority Kurdish areas. This runs against demography: Kurds are some 20 percent of Turkey’s population, concentrated in the Southeast. While ethnic Turks are declining in number, the Kurds are prolific. Twenty years hence, the majority of Turkey’s military-age men will be Kurds. All around Turkey’s southern and Eastern borders, in Syria, Iraq, and Iran are some 15 million Kurds who feel kinship with their Turkish brethren. Erdoğan has bombed Iraqi Kurdistan, and his army has attacked Syrian Kurds under the pretext of attacking ISIS—which Turkey used to support openly and to which it continues to give clandestine support. What Erdoğan thinks his war on Kurds will accomplish only he knows.
Putin’s Russia does not share Erdoğan’s animus against the Kurds. One may safely suppose that Russia’s Putin would prefer to see Turkey’s borders continue to be occupied by forces that make Turkey uncomfortable. Moreover, Russia now being in charge of the Middle East’s zoo, Putin’s interest lies in opposing any party therein getting any bigger in its britches, and in the continuation of as much balance as possible. In short, no one would have to encourage Putin to warn Erdoğan not to strike the Syrian Kurds. But someone may well have urged him to deliver such a warning—John Bolton, for example, when he visited the Kremlin in October to discuss U.S.-Russia relations.
Donald Trump may well have delivered the same warning to Erdoğan even more directly during their pivotal conversation on December 14. After all, Trump had called precisely to deliver that warning. Erdoğan’s “Why don’t you remove your troops?” was a clever counter. But unless Trump is witless as well as vile, he would not have needed Bolton to tell him to answer with something like: “OK. We’ll pull our troops out. But you must agree to leave the Kurds alone. And you must know that, if you renege, our planes from the carriers, in the Gulf, and maybe even from Incirlik, will make you wish you had kept your word.” If that was the deal, keeping it quiet would have been part of it.
We know that, after Trump announced the withdrawal, Erdoğan announced the “suspension” of what had been his impending attack on the Kurds. We don’t know whether this was in consequence of such a deal, or whether Erdoğan intends the suspension to be permanent, or whether Trump intends to enforce it. And of course, we don’t know how Putin is counseling Erdoğan in this regard. Events will tell us soon enough.
Photo credit: Burak Kara/Getty Images