Ilhan Tanir
Apr 16 2018

Damascus Attack Reveals Washington's Isolation of Erdoğan

The Trump administration reduced the number of U.S. State Department press conferences from four to five times a week, to two. In the past 14 months, the Trump administration has only held one or two press conferences on a Friday. 

So it was something of a surprise when the U.S. Department of State announced on Friday morning that it would hold a news conference that day. When it was held a bit late at around 3 pm, naturally questions were weighted heavily toward the chemical weapons attack in Syria. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said after questions that the United States has "very high confidence" that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government was behind the April 7 alleged chemical weapons attack on the town of Douma.

She also said an investigation of the inter-governmental Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) would begin the next day. Although Nauert did not specifically say it, the assumption was that the United States was waiting for the results of the OPCW investigation.

Washington became unusually active on Twitter only a few hours later. And we know how the rest goes. Trump appeared on camera at 9 pm, and he stated that the operation had already begun. 

How then can we interpret words spoken by Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan following the Friday Prayers in Turkey when he said that "the situation is softening" and that "we don't want waters to heat up in our region", apparently opposing air strikes.

Erdoğan's words were proven wrong only a couple hours later. 

By taking Erdoğan’s words into account, as well as the fact that the U.S. spokeswoman stance on that same day was not that harsh, many people, including myself, did not predict that the operation would be carried out on Friday. 

Erdoğan's belief that the "situation is softening" the morning before the attack shows he had not been informed of such a big decision in any way regarding Syria, a country that is constantly discussed in Turkey. The day before, Erdoğan spoke with Trump and Putin over the phone, and some even said that there was mention the Turkish leader could be a mediator in the conflict. 

Could Erdoğan have been intentionally left in the "dark"? The situation makes it seem as if Trump's phone call on Thursday evening was to misguide Erdoğan. If Trump had given Erdoğan - who had planned to have a call with Putin a few hours after the call - the impression that there would be an attack, then the Turkish leader would pass this impression along to Putin. Also it should be remembered that It was after these high-level phone talks that Erdoğan said the "situation is softening." on Friday. It is well known that for number of reasons, Washington does not have much trust in Ankara right now. 

Mahir Ünal, a Turkish government spokesman, said on a television show some 10 hours after the Syria strikes that the United States shared information about the attack with Turkey. However, it seems like the intel that was shared with Ankara was the same information that was shared with Russia, more likely moments before the strikes began. The Pentagon did not respond to questions on what kind of an interaction the United States had with Turkey prior to the strikes.

By acting so unknowingly about the situation, Erdoğan demonstrated that Turkey was one of the countries that Washington did not consult.  

It is possible that Washington did so deliberately. 

The second moment that revealed Ankara was empty handed was when Erdoğan said, "we don't want waters to heat up in the region." Erdoğan - who seemed to be against the attack a couple hours before it happened - seemed to be on Putin's side, and perhaps he was even persuaded by Putin on the phone the day before because these were the exact words that Moscow wanted to hear. 

By saying he did not want "things to heat up," Erdoğan showed his government was against the U.S. operation, yet the next day, all members of the Turkish government came out in support of the attack, after it was carried out.

The Syrian operation has thus revealed a rift between Washington and Ankara. 

It shows that there is no more trust and that Washington will not consult Turkey on a matter of such regional importance that greatly affects the country. 

At 9 pm, Trump listed the names of countries - including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Egypt - that would take steps against Iran. Again, Erdoğan was not mentioned. 

It is well known fact that the meeting between Putin, Rouhani, and Erdoğan in Ankara on April 4 was received poorly in Washington. Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo, one of the closest U.S. officials to Trump, said during the Senate hearing the day before that Russia, Turkey, and Iran were meeting in Ankara to "carve up Syria". Furthermore, Nauert did not oppose this position when she was asked about it on Friday and said that Russia, and Iran "certainly don’t have the best interest of Syria at heart". 

It is also worth mentioning that Ankara never reacted following this heavy accusation coming from Pompeo.

The only positive development in this scenario for Ankara was that the operation was completed in 70 minutes. Because the attack was short and the scope quite narrow, it prevented Ankara from experiencing a dilemma over its relations with Russia and the United States.

For now, Ankara has not had to make a big decision between siding with Moscow or Washington. 

Will Turkey ever be presented with that choice? And if so, what will Erdoğan decide?