Edward G. Stafford
Nov 02 2019

Turkey’s green light in Syria now flashing yellow

The initial rise in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s popularity that greeted Turkey’s success in securing a green light from Donald Trump to attack the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria quickly transformed into cautious negotiations with other actors in Syria. 

Faced with economic sanctions that Turkey, and his political position, could not endure, Erdoğan agreed to a pause in the assault on the People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces to allow them to withdraw from the 32 km safety zone along the Syrian border with Turkey.

Subsequently, Erdoğan had to accommodate his ambitions to the agenda of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and by extension, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s goal to re-establish his control of the entire country.   And we can expect Iran to assist Assad in that and encourage a reconciliation of the YPG/SDF with Assad’s regime.  And though promised to depart, U.S. forces remains in northeast Syria with a mandate to secure potentially lucrative oil fields.

Military operations are expensive, and though the use of irregular militias reduces the casualties Turkey might face, the financial burden is not eased much by their use.  At the same time, foreign investors are still holding back on investing in Turkey, seen by many as less financially stable following the incursion into northern Syria than before.  The Turkish people overwhelmingly support Erdoğan’s efforts against the YPG, but the political gains may be fleeting if the economy does not show signs of improvement soon.  Also, by claiming success against the YPG, Erdoğan opens himself to a call from his opponents to focus on domestic economic issues now that he’s handled the terrorist abroad.

Economic growth will be hard to come by, in part due to the threat of sanctions.  Even if the U.S. Congress does not proceed with sanctions, either because the Senate under Mitch McConnell’s leadership won’t vote on sanctions or because President Trump blocks their implementation, the potential for sanctions will make foreign investors and domestic business hesitant to undertake new projects.  Business investors like predictability, and in U.S.-Turkey relations, that is in short supply.

There are other concerns as well.  The lopsided vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on an Armenian Genocide resolution, 405-11, shows that Turkey, or at least Erdoğan, has few friends remaining in the U.S. Congress.  The apparent lack of coordination with Turkey in tracking down ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, even though he was only 5 kilometres from the Turkish border, raises doubts about the degree to which the U.S. and Turkish militaries trust each other.  Among policy makers, some suspect, without evidence, that Turkey was at least aware of Baghdadi’s location, if not actively protecting him, much like suspicions some U.S. officials had about Pakistani military intelligence personnel protecting Osama bin Laden given his location near Pakistan’s military academy.  Such suspicions, speculation without evidence or merit, are corrosive in the relations between two nations. 

In response to the Baghdadi raid, Erdoğan recently hinted that Turkey could pursue terrorists in foreign countries and assassinate them, as the Americans did.  This ignores the fact that Erdoğan alone names those opponents as terrorists while Baghdadi was labelled a terrorist by every nation in the world.  To suggest that hunting down a vile murderer is akin to sending assassination squads after political opponents living abroad may play well with his most ardent supporters, but no reasonable person sees them as comparable in any way.  Any such, action undertaken in the U.S. would be destructive to what remains of positive U.S.-Turkish relations.

Turkey’s burgeoning partnership with Russia also calls for caution.  Turkey may engage in joint patrols with Russian forces in some border areas, but the anti-Assad militia fighters it uses as ground forces have already clashed with regime forces. 

Assad’s forces would certainly like to eliminate the opposition fighters that Turkey is using, and they for their part would like to re-ignite their actions against the Syrian regime. So Turkey now finds itself depending on Russia to work with it to secure its southern border as it had previously worked with the U.S. to restrain the SDF/YPG.  For how long the various sides can be held back from avenging themselves on others remains to be seen.

The YPG/PYD has already reached an accommodation of sorts with Assad’s regime. They know that plans for a semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave within northern Syria are dead, for now.  However, they to for Assad to use them as a counterweight against the anti-regime militias now supported by Turkey.  How they will operate against Turkish forces and its allied militias, as the U.S. would not allow, remains an open question.

Overhanging all of this is President Erdoğan’s commitment to return one million or more Syrian refugees from Turkey to Syria.  But to do so, he will need the agreement or at least acquiescence of the different factions and actors in northern Syria, as well as that of the refugees themselves.  Of course, he could try to force them back into Syria, but that would only intensify the denunciations of his policies by European, Arab (excepting Qatar), and North American politicians, and further reduce willingness for their nationals to invest in Turkey.

In sum, just as the death of Baghdadi does not solve the problem of ISIS, the green light from Trump to Erdoğan (better seen as the removal of multiple stop signs) does not signal an easy path forward for Turkey in Syria.  Without the U.S. as its partner, Turkey will increasingly enjoy the gentle and warm embrace of a partnership with Putin’s Russia.  Given all the curves in the road and the competing vehicles on the road, Erdoğan must proceed with caution to avoid a crash. 

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