On Wednesday, 9 October, Turkey launched an invasion of Syria after the United States had withdrawn its forces from two observation posts in Tel Abyad and Ein Eissa in the north.
The withdrawal of the American forces came in the wake of a phone conversation between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Sunday, 7 October, in which the latter, according to senior American officials, made clear that his country was no longer satisfied with the Joint Security Mechanism whereby both the United States and Turkey ran joint patrols along the Turkish-Syrian borders and flew reconnaissance flights to defend Turkey’s security interests along the joint border with Syria. The Turks have long complained about what they have called “Kurdish terrorism,” and that they wanted to establish a “safe zone” inside Syria to be a buffer zone.
The invasion drew international condemnation, and the European members in the UN Security Council — Britain, France, Germany and Poland — called for an emergency meeting of the council. The council met on Thursday, 10 October, and both the United States and Russia opposed calling the Turkish move an “aggression” or “invasion”.
Egypt, for its part, called for an emergency meeting of the Ministerial Council of the Arab League to discuss Turkish military operations in northern Syria after releasing a strongly-worded statement on Thursday, 10 October, condemning the advance of the Turkish army into Syria. The Arab ministers met on Saturday, 12 October, in an emergency meeting. No concrete measures were taken to dissuade Turkey from entrenching itself in Syria. The communique released after the meeting did not contain anything significant and it came as a disappointment.
The most serious opposition to Turkish military operations came from within the United States. There was almost unanimous opposition both to the decision by President Trump to withdraw American forces in the line of advancing units of the Turkish army and the Turkish decision to send forces inside Syrian territories to establish the “safe zone”.
Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican, South Carolina), considered one of the staunchest allies of President Trump on Capitol Hill, described the decision to pull out American forces as an “impulsive decision that has long-termed ramifications” and “cuts against sound military and geopolitical advice”. Similarly, Senator Mitch McConnell (Republican, Kentucky), the Senate Majority Leader, urged President Trump to “exercise American leadership” and warned that a “precipitous withdrawal” would benefit Russia, Iran and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and increase the risk that the Islamic State would regroup.
The former American special envoy for the international coalition to degrade and defeat the Islamic State group commented: “This looks to be another reckless decision made without deliberation or consultation following a call with a foreign leader,” and that the White House statement released late Sunday, 7 October, “bears no relation to facts on the ground. If implemented, it will significantly increase risk to [American] personnel, as well as hasten ISIS resurgence.”
In fact, there is widespread agreement among politicians, diplomats, military officers, experts in counterterrorism, and Syria watchers, in the West and in the Arab world, that the chances of a strong comeback of the Islamic State group in some regions that it had previously lost are greater after the Turkish invasion than before.
In a Twitter message Monday, 8 October, Trump, in a stunning reversal, said that “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey.” Some experts have considered this as more bluster than intentions of policy. As to what acts would be considered “off limits”, there is some consensus that they could include ethnic cleansing, the intentional targeting of civilian populations and the disproportionate use of force.
On Thursday, 11 October, President Trump authorised the Treasury Department to impose sanctions on Turkey, both financial and economic, if need be. However, US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross had paid a visit to Turkey last month and said after meeting the Turkish president that the two had an “especially productive meeting” that included discussions about Trump’s proposal to generate up to $100 billion in trade between the United States and Turkey. In the meantime, a senior State Department official told reporters 11 October that Erdogan would pay a visit to Washington (press reports indicated that the visit would take place 13 November) and that Trump talked about in his phone conversation with Erdogan the importance of moving forward on military, financial and trade issues. The senior official characterised the phone call as a “very good conversation”.
He even talked about a certain willingness on the part of President Trump to act as a mediator between Turkey and the Kurds, and that he had instructed the State Department to look for commonalities in the positions of both parties that the United States could build upon in starting such a mediation. He added that the path forward that President Trump would “most prefer” is a negotiated settlement “that meets everybody’s needs”. The senior official mentioned that the State Department is working on a ceasefire between the Turkish army and the Syrian Democratic Forces, a combined force of Kurds and Arabs credited with defeating the Islamic State group in Syria with significant military support from American forces deployed in Syria.
The Turkish government has no intention of ending its military operations in Syria until its objectives are met; namely, changing the demographic composition of the population in the “safe zone” by pushing the Kurds out and replacing them with Sunni Arabs subservient to Turkey and pro-Turkish armed groups, the so-called “Free Syrian Army” and the “National Syrian Army”. It is interesting to note that one week before the Turkish army launched its military operations in northern Syria, Turkey brought the former Al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda and led by a certain Mohamed Al-Goulani, into this “Syrian National Army”.
When the Turkish president travels to Washington to meet President Trump at the Oval Office, he probably will have ensured that the “safe zone” is under the grip of the Turkish army and pro-Turkish armed groups, some of which are well-known terrorist outfits and adamantly opposed to the Syria government. Likewise, he will make sure that there is complete control on the movements of the Islamic State group. After that meeting, no one could guess, with a high degree of certainty, what would happen to Islamic State terrorists in prisons within the “safe zone” and outside it. Also, the Turkish army would control the M-4 Highway linking the east (from the Iraqi borders) to the west, parallel to the “safe zone”. That would give Turkey, through its Syrian proxies, a good bargaining position vis-à-vis Russia, Iran and the Syrian government in future negotiations concerning the future of Syria.
If the Turkish government of President Erdogan is riding high on the strategic contradictions between, on the one hand, the United States and Russia, and on the other, the Arabs and the Iranians, headwinds are likely to gather not in the far-distant future to break the Turkish stranglehold on northern Syria.
However, the fact remains, that inviting the Turkish president to the White House after the invasion of northern Syria sends the wrong signal to America’s allies and partners, especially in the Middle East. The question arises: Is the United States a reliable ally?
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.