Turkey and the United States: the art of no deal

As 2018 came to a close, Turkey and the United States seemed to be mending fences. 

President Donald Trump’s surprise Dec. 19 announcement that he would withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops from northeast Syria must have been music to the ears of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The U.S. president signalled he was prepared to put an end to the alliance with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish force that has made up the bulk of ground forces, helped by U.S. air power, that have all but defeated Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.

Trump appeared to have given a green light to the Turkish army to launch a cross-border operation to dismantle the self-proclaimed autonomous entity in Syria set up by the YPG, which Ankara says is an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984.

Not only that, but Trump also echoed Ankara’s own talking points. Bringing up his phone call with Erdoğan on Dec. 14, Trump insisted Turkey would finish the job of defeating ISIS.

Even if no serious Syria-watcher in the United States was prepared to buy that, there was a modicum of understanding regarding the logic underlying Trump’s move. The problem with the decision was not its substance, but rather its timing and the abrupt manner in which it was taken. Washington has no long-term, strategic reason to keep boots on the ground in Syria.

Adding to the drama was this week’s visit to Ankara by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton (or “Mike Bolton”, as Trump reportedly calls him every now and then), which ended in disaster after Erdoğan cancelled his meeting with him.

What irked Turkey’s president is Bolton’s insistence that the U.S. withdrawal is conditional on Turkey pledging not to attack the YPG in Syria. The prospect of Washington extending the pullout date well beyond the 30-day period originally foreseen is another sticking point.

As mop-up operations against ISIS in the border areas with Iraq might go on for months, Bolton’s announcement suggests U.S. special forces – along with commandoes from France and other U.S. allies – are in no hurry to pack up and leave.   

It is also significant that the message was delivered by Bolton, who has repeatedly said U.S. troops need to stay in Syria to counter Iran and its proxies. The national security advisor came to Ankara after talks in Israel where he reassured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and security officials that Washington remained fully committed to containing the Islamic Republic.

In short, Erdoğan had good reason to be angry with Bolton and the United States, as he expressed, with his usual verve, in a speech before his parliamentary party on Tuesday.

The fresh crisis could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It buys the United States and Turkey time to forge a bargain on northeast Syria. A gradual withdrawal is a more favourable scenario for Ankara than an abrupt departure, as it relieves Erdoğan from the need to rush into Syria and possibly risk a confrontation with the Assad regime and Iran allied with the Kurds.

A negotiated handover of a buffer zone along the Syrian border from the United States to Turkey is by far the best outcome. Ideally, the Americans would collect back the heavy weaponry they have distributed to the YPG. But whether this scenario is still in the cards is anyone’s guess, especially after the bad blood generated by Bolton’s Mideast trip.

The diplomatic mishap is a reminder that one of the obstacles to true U.S.-Turkey rapprochement is the deep dysfunctionality of the Trump Administration. Erdoğan likely believed that he had reached a deal with the U.S. president. But now the White House is changing tack, possibly due to the backlash at home, notably by Republicans in Congress and hawks within the administration.  

Now that Trump has gotten rid of James Mattis at the Pentagon he has a freer hand in foreign policy. But he remains unable to follow through on his decisions. As a result, America keeps zigzagging in Syria with no clear direction.  

Turkey’s problem is much broader. A fair amount of what Erdoğan wants from the United States does not depend on Trump’s will. Even if the U.S. president wanted to do so, he could not simply decree the extradition of Fethullah Gülen over the failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.

Also, the Turkish government is currently negotiating the transfer back home of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, convicted in New York of helping Iran evade sanctions, yet Trump is in no position to influence judicial proceedings in the case.

Finally, there is no love lost for Turkey and Erdoğan in U.S. Congress. Capitol Hill is showing its teeth over Ankara’s purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia. The art of the deal is not what it used to be.  

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.