After what looked like a green light from the US to Turkey to start military operations in northern Syria, the Turkish invasion of the country began on the evening of 9 October.
Within days, the US position seemed muddled and confused, however, and statements by US President Donald Trump, his secretaries of defence and treasury and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, have highlighted the divergent views in Washington regarding Turkey’s military escapade.
It did not seem to be a matter of accepting the Turkish invasion of Syria or not, but about how far into Syria Washington would allow Ankara to invade.
Before the Turkish incursion, the White House seemed willing to accept Turkey’s right to create a safe zone in northern Syria to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish entity on its border and for Turkey to return some of the four million Syrian refugees in the country to this area.
However, Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan disagreed on the size of this zone. The US wanted this area to be no more than 20 km deep on the Syrian side, while Turkey wanted to double that area to 40 km. Washington did not want to see expansion eastwards, but the Turkish operations show that Turkey will not abide by these conditions.
These misunderstandings between Turkey and the US played out on the ground during the invasion.
The US did not withdraw its forces in north-east Syria (around 1,000 soldiers) in what seemed to be an intentional move to force the Turkish army to limit its incursion to the area the US had outlined, but by 13 October, after news of the Turkish bombing of areas where the US forces are located, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said that after meeting with Trump and showing him reports that the Turkish army would ignore the boundaries specified by the US for the safe zone, he had given orders to withdraw the US troops in an orderly fashion to avoid any loss of life.
At the same time, Trump had warned Turkey against expanding beyond certain limits, threatening harsh economic sanctions if it did so.
“I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path,” the president said.
In an executive order issued Monday, President Trump ordered the halt of a $100 billion trade deal being hammered out between Ankara and Washington, raises tariffs on Turkish steel to 50 per cent and imposes sanctions on senior Turkish officials and the country’s defence and energy ministries.
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle criticised Trump, saying that US values were being seriously compromised because Washington appeared to be betraying its Kurdish allies who had played a key role in removing Islamic State (IS) forces from the region.
Turkish strikes in Syrian Kurdish areas could result in the release of IS prisoners, estimated at more than 12,000, they said, which could mean the area would become unstable, as it was after 2016 when IS invaded Iraqi and Syrian towns and created a so-called caliphate that lasted for two years.
In response to objections from Congress demanding immediate sanctions on Turkey, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that “it must be very clear that protecting Kurdish forces in northern Syria is not one of the US’s duties, but President Trump wanted us to be ready to impose sanctions on Turkey if necessary. We can do that and are ready to implement these sanctions immediately.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was even more confusing in his response, saying that the US had not given Erdogan a green light to invade Syria.
Aaron Testa, a press officer in the office of the US State Department’s spokesperson, told a London-based Website on 11 October that “President Trump described the Turkish incursion as a bad idea and said he does not support it. He added that he expects Turkey to protect civilians and religious minorities and prevent a humanitarian crisis from happening.”
The US does not have the luxury to remain muddled for long since events on the ground are moving fast and will force it to make up its mind quickly. There is the possibility of a serious humanitarian crisis in northern Syria, as confirmed in early UN reports.
On 12 October, United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said that “it is difficult to guarantee the safety of civilians in an area created by Turkish military planners in northern Syria.”
Moreover, Syrian Democratic Forces in the area have asked Russia and the Syrian Al-Assad regime to take charge of border villages that the Turkish army is moving towards. The US position will be further complicated if Erdogan decides to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on the boundaries of the safe zone or guarantees the prevention of the creation of a Kurdish entity on Turkey’s border and cooperation in returning the Syrian refugees from Turkey.
This would mean that the US would be excluded from arrangements to solve the Syrian crisis, leaving Turkey and Russia to monopolise the scene. It would also raise difficult questions for Trump about the failure of his foreign policies as he approaches possible impeachment or other hurdles preventing him from running for a second term.
At this point in Turkey’s war on the Kurds, Trump could be counting on a dispute between Turkey and Russia and Iran that would cause Turkey to backtrack on its war path. This threatens US-Turkish relations, especially after Erdogan made a deal to buy the S-400 missile system from Russia and bolstered trade relations with Iran.
But this remains a weak possibility since Erdogan knows that achieving his ambition of making Turkey the top regional power is unacceptable for Washington and its ally Israel and some of the Arab countries. Therefore, Trump had no choice but to implement his threat of sanctions against Turkey, which would compound the country’s two-year economic crisis and distance Turkey from its alliance with the West.
Amid reports that Trump has invited Erdogan to the White House in mid-November, the US president appears to be giving his Turkish counterpart one month to continue his military campaign and achieve his goals. Should he fail to do so, Erdogan would not be able to blame the US, but rather those he thought could be an alternative or counter to Washington in Russia and Iran.
Overall, it does not seem that Turkey can move with confidence in its military campaign judging by its slow progress inside Syria. Some interpret this slow pace as meaning that Turkey has further goals, as military analyst Metin Gurcan tweeted on 11 October. “It seems that Turkish forces have been moving much slower since the beginning of the operation, compared with previous incursions into Syria (such as Operation Olive Branch in January 2018),” he said.
This is likely because Ankara hopes to curb the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in the area through its permanent military presence, which is the final phase of its broader plan against the Kurdish Workers Party the PKK.
In recent years, Turkey has succeeded in removing a large chunk of the PKK presence inside its territory and has targeted PKK leaders in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains, meaning that PKK branches in Syria are the logical next target.
If this is true, then Turkey’s slow pace inside Syria will jeopardise the limited period Trump is giving Erdogan to achieve his goals without embarrassing Washington.
Due to such complications, Erdogan’s moves could cause the Trump administration to find itself under pressure domestically and internationally, especially if there are too many casualties from the military operations or waves of refugees fleeing the battle zones to unsafe camps.
This could result in a broader clash with Turkey even before Erdogan sets foot in Washington.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.