Jan 07 2019

Erdoğan: Only Turkey can protect U.S. and international interests in Syria

Turkey is the only country capable of ensuring the planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria goes through without harming vital U.S., Syrian and international interests, a New York Times column published under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s name has said.

“President Trump made the right call to withdraw from Syria,” the column’s opening line said, before cautioning against a hasty exit. 

It was reportedly Erdoğan’s phone conversation with Donald Trump on December 14 that first spurred the U.S. president to pull troops out of Syria. Erdoğan reportedly told Trump that the Islamic State, the extremist jihadist group that were the main reason for U.S. deployment, had been defeated leaving no basis for a continued U.S. presence. Trump’s agreement to withdraw, senior officials have said, came so quickly that Erdoğan asked him to consider the decision carefully.

It is a sentiment repeated in the Turkish president’s column on Monday, which urges the United States to carefully plan its withdrawal and cooperate with the “right partners.”

“Turkey, which has NATO’s second largest standing army, is the only country with the power and commitment to perform that task,” Erdoğan’s column said.

It went on to list Turkey’s past actions in Syria, including close quarters fighting against Islamic State militants in parts of northern Syria, and the protection of infrastructure and funding provided by Turkey in areas of Syria it has taken control of.

The column also reiterated Ankara’s statement promising to “ensure its own safety and the well-being of the international community” by continuing the fight against the Islamic State – though this, it said, would not necessarily take place on a military level.

“Militarily speaking, the so-called Islamic State has been defeated in Syria. Yet we are deeply concerned that some outside powers may use the organization’s remnants as an excuse to meddle in Syria’s internal affairs,” it said.

However, it is not the Islamic State but the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that many believe is the true target of Turkey’s planned operation in northern Syria. Ankara sees the group as a terrorist organisation due to its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has pursued Kurdish self-rule through armed struggle in Turkey since 1984.

The column cites a Human Rights Watch report accusing the YPG of recruiting child soldiers. “Following the United States withdrawal from Syria, we will complete an intensive vetting process to reunite child soldiers with their families,” it said, also promising to create a multi-ethnic stabilisation force to police areas under Turkey’s control.

It went on to give assurances that Kurdish territories would be represented by local councils of Kurdish community representatives – most probably a response to fears expressed by U.S. officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Turkey could “slaughter” Kurds during an operation in the area.

Finally, the column promises to work with international partners to “get the job done in Syria,” stressing Turkey’s position in both the United Nations’ Geneva peace process and the Astana peace process run by Russia, the most powerful ally of the Syrian regime.

The column finishes with a statement that will play well with the regime and its Russian backers, as Turkey promised “to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity” as well as fighting the Islamic State.

“Turkey is volunteering to shoulder this heavy burden at a critical time in history. We are counting on the international community to stand with us,” the column said.