Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had hoped to be out of the country on 10 November, the anniversary of the death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. But his advisors warned him that this might not go over well with his supporters. So, he changed his plans and paid the required visit to the Anitkabir, the mausoleum of the founder of the Turkish republic, perhaps to solicit Ataturk’s blessings for his “Peace Spring” operation in northeast Syria. Then, this being a national day, Erdogan took the occasion to praise himself, warn of conspiracies and attack opposition figures, especially those among the Republican People’s Party (CHP) founded by Ataturk.
That same day, the Defence Ministry announced that Turkish forces had succeeded in defusing 331 mines and 891 IEDs that the “separatist PKK” had left behind before withdrawing from the border strip in northeast Syria. Erdogan and the Turkish mainstream media invariably fuse the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) with the Anatolian based Kurdistan Workers Party.
TV screens quickly cut back to Erdogan so he could deliver the joyful news, in a televised address, that 365,000 Syrians had returned “home” to safe areas in Syria prepared by Turkish armed forces. He did not designate where these areas were located or how large they were. Not that long ago, in his speech to the UN General Assembly, he had vowed to build hundreds of thousands of homes for returning refugees. Could construction have been completed with such lightning speed? Dare one ask whether the refugees went willingly?
According to UN sources and the London-based Syrian Human Rights Observatory, the people being resettled were not refugees at all, but families of the Turkish backed militias who had been relocated to Afrin from places such as Ghouta, northern Aleppo and other areas where Russia had stepped in to broker a deal between insurgent militias and Damascus.
Erdogan, in his speech, boasted of the military operation’s success in “restoring security” to 8,200 km2 of territory. He did not mention how hundreds of thousands of the region’s native inhabitants had been displaced from their homes and villages by the bands that he rebranded as the “Syrian National Army”. Nor did he speak of their acts of extortion, plunder and extrajudicial killings that are widely reported everywhere outside of Turkey.
Meanwhile, Erdogan has found no support for his project from Europe, despite Kati Piri’s replacement by Nacho Sanchez Amor as Turkey rapporteur. Brussels has “condemned” the Turkish military invasion of northern Syria and EU MPs have urged tough sanctions that included a refusal to grant entry visas to senior Turkish officials regarded as responsible for the human rights abuses that have been committed as a consequence of the Turkish invasion. They also urged EU member states to study suspending Turkey’s preferred agricultural trading partner status and, as a final resort, the customs union agreement between Ankara and the EU. Amor has indicated that he is eager to get off to a fresh start with Ankara, but stressed that its unilateral military operation in northern Syria was a “major obstacle”.
Far more important to Erdogan is Washington, towards which his heart and his presidential plane sailed for a 13 November meeting with Trump with high hopes for progress in discussions on issues ranging from the “safe zone” in Syria and the repatriation of Syrian refugees to the question of the Russian S-400 missile batteries versus the US F-35 programme, and from the Halk Bank money laundering case to the extradition of his erstwhile friend and ally, now archenemy, Fethullah Gulen. Would his mission succeed? Erdogan knows how to sweet talk Trump on the phone and in person. But there would be others in the room in the White House. Then there was the problem of Capitol Hill where there is overwhelming fury against the Turkish invasion of Syria and general opposition to the Turkish strongman and his policies, sentiments shared by some senior members in the Trump administration.
Observers wondered, as Erdogan’s plane soared across the Atlantic, whether the charges aired by William Roebuck, the US’s deputy special envoy on Syrian policy and the most senior US diplomat on the ground in northern Syria, could set the tone for his visit. On 7 November, The New York Times revealed an important internal State Department memo by Roebuck addressed to his boss, James Jeffrey, and cc’d to around 50 State Department and Pentagon officials, lamenting that the US did not do enough to prevent “Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria, spearheaded by armed Islamist groups on its payroll”. “Let’s be clear, this is intentioned-laced ethnic cleansing; it is a war crime, when proven,” he said.
State Department Spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus declined to comment on the memo. But she quickly added, “[W]e have made clear that we strongly disagreed with President Erdogan’s decision to enter Syria and that we did everything short of a military confrontation to prevent it.”
Anticipating criticisms and in order to demonstrate that Ankara is “on the same page” as Washington regarding the Islamic State (IS) group, the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT) announced that it had arrested Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s sister, Rasmiya Awad, her husband and their five children. Two days later, Erdogan personally announced the arrest of Al-Baghdadi’s wife. But this hasn’t silenced sceptics in Washington and elsewhere who sense that there is much more than meets the eye to the Erdogan-IS/Al-Qaeda connection.
In short, Ankara and Washington’s positions are still miles apart, which is why it is not surprising that the US has decided to stay in Syria “as long as necessary” in order to protect the oil fields. The purpose is not just to keep them from reverting to IS, but to ensure that “the Kurds in the area and the SDF forces actually have a revenue stream and an ability to work on building up their strengths for the D-ISIS [Defeat-IS] campaign,” said Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman in an 8 November press briefing.
Naturally, Erdogan was not pleased at all at this change in direction. Worse yet, US forces have partnered up with the Kurdish-led SDF — “terrorists”, in Erdogan’s eyes — to patrol the stretch of border from Qamishli to Ras Al-Ain. Suggesting that Washington had not lived up to its commitment to clear Kurdish fighters from the border, he insisted his country remained committed to the agreements it made. “We never back out of what we sign our name to,” he said.
To top it off, along the other stretch of the border, protesters pelted Turkish tanks with stones during a joint patrol with the Russians. Ankara suspected that this could not have happened without some signal from Washington.
Such developments were “not in keeping with our strategic partnership with Washington”, Erdogan complained. So, off he set to the White House to set things right. Did he succeed?
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.