Turkey’s Erdoğan eases off Syria invasion after failing to secure meeting with Trump

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan travelled to New York for the UN General Assembly this week media from his home country touted the visit as a last opportunity for the United States to make good on the Syrian safe zone project agreed last month.

Erdoğan and top officials from his government had spent the last month warning that they had not only a “b” but also a “c” plan so set in motion if they believed Washington was stalling them.

That meant unilateral military action against the U.S.-backed Kurdish militias in northern Syria unless progress on a safe zone that satisfied Turkey’s demands was met by the end of September.

The threat of a military incursion was hammered into the agenda over the weeks since U.S. and Turkish officials agreed to cooperate on the safe zone project on August 7. Turkey’s Defence Minister, Hulusi Akar, first mentioned the “b” and “c” plans days after the cooperation was announced, and has consistently used the same language discussing the plan since then.

Erdoğan repeated the message in speeches throughout September, complaining that the United States had continued supplying the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and their allies with weapons on Sept. 7 and warning that Turkey would take matters into its own hands if there was no concrete progress by the month’s end.

The warning came again in a speech by Erdoğan on Sept. 18, by which time the countdown had reached the two-week mark.

The country’s media followed the top government officials’ lead, driving home the point that a military operation could be triggered by October.

Yeni Şafak editor İbrahim Karagül, a chief conspiracy theorist in the pro-Erdoğan press ranks, talked about an invasion as imperative “even if it meant suicide” in a column on Sept. 5.

As the UNGA neared Turkish commentators decried the progress on safe zone talks and described an expected meeting between Trump and Erdoğan at the assembly as a “last chance” to make the project work.

The idea of an internationally policed militarised buffer zone along Syria’s border with Turkey has been raised by Ankara since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, and was brought back to the fore in 2014, with the bloody onslaught by ISIS and the large wave of migration it triggered.

With ISIS defeated and the Syrian government in control of most of the country, the latest iteration of the plan mainly focuses on Turkey’s security concerns about the SDF. Ankara will not tolerate the existence on its border of a U.S.-backed self-governing region linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has been fighting the Turkish state for Kurdish self-rule since the 1980s.

But there is a second crucial factor in the plan – the growing discontent among Turks, still hurting from last year’s currency crisis, at the presence of millions of Syrian refugees in their country.

Millions of Syrians have fled the violence committed by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. Few are likely to willingly return to territories under its control. Instead, Erdoğan plans to build new settlements to rehouse them in the proposed safe zone.

U.S. officials stated that “every effort” would be made to return displaced Syrians to a “peace corridor” when they agreed to collaborate on the safe zone on Aug. 7.

The wording was vague. Washington’s Syrian Kurdish partners have said they will welcome the return of Syrians displaced from the territories in question. Resettling up to 3 million people, as Erdoğan discussed doing this week, is another matter entirely.

This was the plan revealed by Erdoğan at his speech to the UNGA this week, during which he proposed a donor conference to gather financial support to help return Syrian refugees from their host countries.

Such a plan most likely rests on U.S. support. Turkey has captured territory from the SDF in northwest Syria in two previous operations, but an invasion of the 600-km-long area controlled by the group along Turkey’s southern border, SDF commander Mazloum Kobani has warned, would lead to a far more destructive conflict.

Yet Erdoğan appears to have come away from the UNGA with little more than a phone call and a handshake from Trump.

The president was likely occupied with other matters this week. Instead of the tete-a-tete Erdoğan had been hoping for, Turkish Presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın held a meeting with James Jeffrey, the U.S. Syria envoy who has presided over glacial progress on resolving the Turkish-Kurdish impasse since taking the position last year.

With days to go until the deadline and no meeting with Trump, talk from Turkish officials and press officials of an impending invasion became remarkably muted. Erdoğan spoke vaguely about the safe zone plan proceeding on schedule on Friday, though in concrete terms this progress apparently amounted to fly-overs by Turkish jets.

On Friday evening, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu muddied the waters by speaking of his dissatisfaction with the progress of talks, which he said had been held up over disagreements of the extent of the proposed safe zone.

This is far from a matter of fine-tuning – the disagreement over the depth of the zone has been constant since the idea came up for discussion in January, long before the agreement in August.

Yet there has been no sign of the swift preparations made by Turkey before its last cross-border incursion into Afrin last year in January, nor the high tensions in border areas and hasty meetings with Russia when Turkey threatened to attack last December. Nor is there any sign of the movement from the Syrian government. None of Saturday’s front pages in Turkey referred to the possibility of an invasion, nor did popular pro-government columnists touch on the topic.

Viewed in this light, the last month of steadily building pressure over northern Syria and the way it has dissipated with the October deadline looming could well have been a PR exercise that did not quite pan out.

Erdoğan has had prior success gaining concessions from Trump, even if his words often fail to translate into concrete action.

It was Trump’s snap decision to fully withdraw U.S. troops from Syria – reportedly taken without consulting his staff – that paved the way for the current wrangling over the safe zone. And Trump took Ankara’s side again this year, when the delivery of Russian S-400 missile defence systems spurred U.S. Congress to push for sanctions against its NATO allies.

The Turkish president may have wished to create the impression that he had forced more concessions from Trump on the safe zone deal.

Invasion remains an option for Turkey, which has amassed an impressive military force along its border. But for now, a continuation of the status quo, with joint U.S.-Turkish patrols and flyovers in northeast Syria and continued debate over the depth of the safe zone, seems far more likely.