U.S. and Turkish irrational thinking hands power to Assad, Putin

The raging dispute between Turkey and the United States, which sanctioned Ankara on Monday for its northeast Syria offensive, has mainly served to expand the influence of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Seven days into Turkey’s incursion, more than 60 civilians have been killed and some 150,000 people displaced, with reports of roadside executions by Turkey-backed rebels. 

“Turkey does not appear to be mitigating the humanitarian effects of its invasion,” President Donald Trump said in a statement just as the Treasury placed sanctions on Turkey's defence, interior and energy ministers, freezing their assets and barring any U.S.-linked dealings. 

A senior U.S. official said that the sanctions were specifically designed to focus the attention of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other Turkish officials on the situation in northeast Syria, where Ankara hopes to decimate a Syrian Kurdish foe and create a safe zone for the resettlement of up to 3 million refugees. 

Nicholas Danforth, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, saw the sanctions having little impact. “It’s very difficult to imagine Erdoğan backing down,” he told Ahval. 

Turkey sees the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which spearheaded the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an armed insurgency in Turkey for decades and is designated a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union and Turkey. 

Danforth said that exaggerated threats from Trump, Senator Lindsey Graham and other U.S. officials, combined with vague sanctions triggers, “makes these sanctions uniquely ineffective ... and all the more likely to simply play a counter-productive and punitive role”.

U.S. Senator Chris van Holland took a similar view. “Pathetic response,” he tweeted on Monday, urging Congress to “enact tough sanctions that impact Turkish conduct”.

The last round of U.S. sanctions, imposed a year ago for Turkey’s detention of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, pushed the Turkish lira into free-fall and ultimately drove the Turkish economy into a brief recession. 

“Who cares about the state of your economy if your citizens do not have security domestically?” said Yusuf Erim, political analyst for state-run broadcaster TRT World, pointing to Turkey’s security concerns regarding the SDF. “It’s paramount to secure the homeland above all else.”

Since the SDF reached a deal with President Bashar Assad on Monday and Syrian forces began moving into formerly Kurdish-held cities near the Turkish border, the fighting in northeast Syria appears to have slowed. 

Yet, just as Erdoğan argued in an op-ed in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Erim said Turkey still intended to carve out a 480-km-long, 32-km-deep safe zone cleared of SDF fighters.

“(Turkey) plans to resettle refugees the second they feel this area is secure and these refugees would desire a return home,” he said. “That in line will trigger and support a political solution process.”

Danforth was sceptical. 

“It’s difficult to know what to make of Turkish claims about resettling all these refugees because they’ve been delusional from the outset,” he said, adding that Turkey would probably not get its safe zone as the refugee situation had shifted to favour Assad. 

“You’re now going to have Turkey and possibly the EU looking at what kind of deal they can make with the Assad regime to allow many of these refugees to go back,” said Danforth, who expected the latest fighting to create more refugees. 

“There’ll be a lot of pressure on both sides to agree to (Assad’s) terms, in return for him basically not killing refugees who move back.”

Both analysts agreed that the past week had increased the influence of Assad and Putin and that any political solution in Syria would likely reiterate the 1998 Adana Agreement, under which Syria agreed to allow Turkey to undertake cross-border operations, with no long-term presence, if Damascus were to support any Kurdish militia within its territory. 

“This is what Russia and the regime are pushing for, and what I think they are going to try to force Turkey to concede to,” said Danforth. “Turkey is now going to be most likely dependent on Russia as the only actor in the region who can restrain the Assad regime and prevent it from using the PKK against Turkey.”

Erim argued that the troubles began with the U.S. decision to partner with the SDF, also known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a huge blow to U.S.-Turkey relations. 

“It’s been a security-based relationship for half a century,” he explained, “and that security-based relationship, with the U.S. partnering with the YPG, has completely had the floor cave in on it.”

EU states have placed a ban on Turkish arms imports. Some analysts have argued that Turkey should be kicked out of NATO. U.S. officials have begun reviewing plans to evacuate roughly 50 nuclear weapons the United States has long kept in Turkey, about 250 miles from the Syrian border, according to the New York Times. 

Erim argued the United States had no alternative to Turkey.

“Why would (the United States) pull nuclear weapons from some of the most valuable geopolitical land in the world?” he said. “If you lost Turkey, who would be your replacement, who would be your alternative - Iran? Saudi Arabia?” 

Danforth was unsure this would keep the supposed allies from becoming foes. 

“The sensible thing is for both countries to continue their alliance,” he said. “However, when you look at Washington and Ankara right now you don’t necessarily see evidence of rational thinking.”

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