Alwaght- As time goes by, Trump faces further challenges in proving to his domestic critics that the US interests will be saved after the withdrawal of the American forces from Syria. One controversial issue is cutting military support to the Syrian Kurds who are labeled terrorist by Turkey. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is looking to see when the opportunity is ripe to cleanse the People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the southern Turkish borders with Syria, a plan which is supposed to give Ankara further weight in the future Syrian developments and the talks to put an end to the several-year Syrian crisis.
The US leader argued that once the Americans exit from Syria, the Syrian Kurds, allied to Washington since 2015, will not face security threats and Turkey will accomplish what remains of anti-ISIS mission. The Trump optimism did not last long, however. Ankara intensified its military amassment in its southern borders, signaling that Erdogan finds the Kurds in Eastern Euphrates posing a more serious threat to Turkey than the ISIS terrorist group.
Last week, Washington sent its National Security Advisor John Bolton to Turkey to discuss ways of easing the Turkish security worries related to the Kurds while preventing a military campaign in Syria’s Eastern Euphrates region bordering Turkey.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has just cut short a tour of the allied Arab states, told the Saudi-run Al Arabiya news channel in Abu Dhabi that he was “optimistic” about a deal between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds so that the Kurds are protected and Turkey borders are secured. The talks so far yielded no US-desired results as Erdogan is apparently reluctant to talk the Kurdish case. Bolton left Ankara empty-handed. Following the failure of the Turkish-American negotiations, Trump posted a strong-toned tweet, warning to “devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.” The threat brought to the surface the tensions that recently eased and led Erdogan to invite the US leader to visit Turkey. After the warning post, according to the Turkish Anadolu news agency, Erdogan and Trump held a phone conversation.
Now the question is that can Trump threat pave the way for a Turkish reviewed stance concerning the Kurds and will the two reach a Washington-desired deal? On what basis will such a deal stand? Or will Ankara consider Trump warning an empty one similar to his highly contracting past stances and continue setting restrictions on the Syrian Kurds’ power?
Safe zone: Washington guarantees and Turkish interests
Establishing a safe zone in Syria is not a new issue. Since the eruption of the conflict, the Turkish leaders raised the idea, though the plan did not materialize as the other actors, including the US, opposed it. During an address at the UN, Erdogan said the Turkish army was ready to contribute to setting up a safe zone to shield the refugees against the terrorist groups including the ISIS. In a bid to convince the West to join the effort, which mainly aimed at stopping further Kurdish power gain and end their autonomous rule in Syria’s north, Turkey told the West that the safe zone will undermine the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and strengthen the armed opposition. The Turkish push, however, did not secure what the Turkish leaders wanted. As a result, Turkey itself intervened militarily in Syria to push back the Kurdish militias in 2016 and 2018 under operations Euphrates Shilled and Olive Branch.
Now on the threshold of the third Turkish anti-Kurdish operation, the US appears to find the solution to convince Turkey in return to the buffer zone and giving Erdogan the necessary guarantees that the Turkish borders’ security will not be jeopardized by the Kurds.
James George Stavridis, a retired United States Navy admiral and former commander of the US-led NATO forces, in an interview with a radio station, said that at the end of the road a physical buffer zone is necessary between Syria and Turkey. The UN, he added, can dispatch patrols in such area or the US and Russia can jointly supervise it. The Turks can be on the one side and the Kurds on the other side. “We need a physical barricade anyway.”
But a safe zone will never address the Turkish interests in northern Syria. The fundamental source of Turkish worry is not only a fear of possible Kurdish attacks on its border areas but also the very foundation of Kurdish autonomy in the north backed diplomatically by the US and the Israeli regime. A review of the general Turkish policy under Erdogan in dealing with the PKK terrorist group makes it clear that Ankara makes the most of this terrorist threat to meddle in the neighboring Syria and Iraq and also to improve its regional status. This has been one reason behind the abrupt collapse of ceasefire deal with the PKK and adoption of an interventionist policy mainly having its roots in the regional developments and Ankara desire to return to its regional Ottoman-era hegemony. So, a US-Turkey deal by itself cannot remove the Turkish worries, especially that Trump added threat to his safe zone suggestion to Turkey.
How much Turkey will take into consideration Trump’s threats is connected to its geopolitical influence and significant role in NATO. So far, it has taken advantage of Russian-American competition in the region. Without their green light, it was hard for Ankara to take military action in the north without any trouble. But it seems that Trump’s new opposition is different from what Turkey faced in 2016 and 2018. After all, the matter is now the interests of the key US ally in the region, the Israeli regime, and Trump’s credibility at home. Allowing Turkey to attack Eastern Euphrates will weaken Trump in the 2020 election. In fact, after massive criticism, now Trump understands that the Syria, as he called “sand and death”, can heavily be used against him by his critics in the future.