Jan 15 2019

Trump changes tack on Turkey as it readies Syria invasion

Hours after U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweeted threat to “devastate Turkey economically” spurred a drop in the Turkish lira, the American leader tweeted positively about his Monday phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Speaking with reporters in Riyadh on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked if the impact of Trump’s tweet on the lira might alter or compromise U.S. withdrawal plans from Syria, considering the pullout depends on Turkey taking up the fight against ISIS. “I don’t think it’ll change that,” Pompeo said, admitting it was “a fair question”.

Yet Trump’s tweet elided the most contentious issue between Ankara and Washington regarding the planned U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria: the protection of Kurdish fighters.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton provided more detail about the Trump-Erdoğan chat, which he says reconfirmed his assertion, last week, that the U.S. pullout was contingent on Turkey not attacking the mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS).

“President Trump had an excellent conversation with President Erdoğan and reemphasised the consistent U.S. position on standing by the Kurds and those who fought with the U.S.,” Bolton tweeted Monday afternoon.

Ankara’s readout of the phone call seemed to confirm this view: “The President noted that he welcomed his counterpart’s decision to withdraw from Syria and reiterated (that) Turkey was prepared to provide all kinds of support to the United States, its NATO ally.”

Meanwhile, a Turkish pro-government news outlet reported on Monday that Turkey had made all necessary preparations for its largest foreign military operation in the country’s 96-year history, readying some 80,000 troops along the Syrian border. Ankara has vowed to destroy the YPG, which it considers the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group that has been fighting inside Turkey for more than three decades.

Also on Monday, the head of Syria’s top jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), expressed support for Turkey's plan to attack the Kurdish militants. “We are in favour of this region being liberated from the PKK,” said Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, who heads a group dominated by members of the former al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

In Riyadh, Pompeo was asked to explain Trump’s mention of a “20-mile safe zone” in northern Syria. “We want to make sure that the folks who fought with us to take down the caliphate in ISIS have security, and also that terrorists acting out of Syria aren’t able to attack Turkey. Those are the twin aims,” he told reporters.

“So if we can get a space – call it a buffer zone, others might have a different name for it – if we can get the space and the security arrangements right, this will be a good thing for everyone in the region,” Pompeo said.