Edward G. Stafford
Dec 17 2018

Erdoğan tells United States to get out of the way

Days after the United States and Turkey released a statement on their positive efforts to resolve ongoing disagreements about the two NATO allies' operations in Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced Turkey planned to launch strikes against Syrian Kurdish forces that the United States has been helping to fight the Islamic State (ISIS). 

Erdoğan said Turkey would not target U.S. forces and personnel, but insisted that with the struggle against the common enemy of ISIS in Syria nearing an end, there was no reason for U.S. forces to remain in Syria. He made it clear that U.S. forces now only prevent Turkey from attacking the YPG, which he declares is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting inside Turkey for more than 30 years and is listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States, Turkey and the European Union.  

Alarm bells went off in Washington, and President Donald Trump called Erdoğan. Based on minimal leaks, it appears certain that Trump’s first priority was to ensure that no action that might endanger U.S. personnel would be undertaken, and that U.S. and Turkish commanders on the ground would work to “deconflict” their different operations.  

The next few days will reveal whether Trump can salvage the situation of Washington’s Kurdish partners in northern Syria, maintain a presence there to track the actions of Iran, and retain at least some leverage in discussions about post-civil war Syria.

It will not be easy as the location of U.S. forces in northeastern Syria along the border with Turkey to the north and the border with Iraq to the east makes them dependent on the goodwill or non-opposition of Turkey and Iraq. A continuing U.S. military presence in Syria would be difficult to maintain if Erdoğan aggressively pursues his efforts to remove the Americans as an obstacle to the pursuit of his immediate and longer-term plans.  

This is the proper context for understanding Erdoğan’s subtle and overtly anti-American rhetoric – the United States is in the way, it needs to get out of the way. His actions and rhetoric reveal someone who sees the United States not as an enemy poised to attack Turkey or even as an opponent ready to counter its initiatives, but simply as a bump or ditch in the road that must be gone around to proceed. Thus, his recent remarks were not a threat against the United States, but they were “friendly” advice not to stand in the middle of the road Erdoğan is building.

As always, Erdoğan portrays himself, and by extension Turkey, as the aggrieved party. If only the United States would get out of the way, Turkey would be able to solve all its problems, for its problems are not of its making, but brought about by foreigners. The United States may be the biggest obstacle to Turkey realising its destiny, as Erdoğan sees it, but other nations also erect roadblocks to its recovery of rightful influence and security in the greater Middle East, and in the Muslim community.  

What can the United States do to assuage Erdoğan’s anger and retain a place at the table in discussions of post-civil war Syria? To maintain forces in Syria to keep tabs on Iranian and Iranian proxies’ behaviour? To protect the legitimate interests of its Kurdish partners that it worked alongside combating ISIS? In a word, how does the United States restore faith in its promises to friends and allies and at the same time serve its own national interest for a stable Middle East not dominated by Iran, without the support of Turkey?

It will not be easy, and it may be impossible. U.S. Presidential Envoy Jim Jeffrey recognises the value of Turkey in stabilising the Middle East and blunting Iranian ambitions. Erdoğan likely does too, and appears to be raising the price for continued Turkish goodwill towards U.S. efforts against Iran.  

Erdoğan also seeks to lead the United States into a false dilemma of choosing between Kurds and Turkey, false because support for legitimate political demands of the Kurds in Turkey or Syria or Iraq is not support for terrorists, just as Turkish humanitarian and other support for Syrians oppressed by Assad is not support for terrorists among the armed opponents of Assad. In his way of operating, Erdoğan is not unlike Trump, who portrays those supportive of migrants and refugees as unconcerned with national security.

Erdoğan has, again, laid a trap for the Erdoğan that it must not fall into. The Erdoğan must not allow itself to adopt Erdoğan’s paradigm of U.S.-Turkish-Kurdish relations with its “us or them” choice. Trump may be able to avoid this trap, not because he cares about implied promises to Kurdish partners, but because he and his closest advisors are focused on blunting Iran. One can imagine Trump telling Erdoğan that the United States cares little for the Kurds, but it has no plans to abandon its ability to monitor Iranian actions in Syria afforded it by a small U.S. military presence in Syria. The result would be the same – US personnel would in effect shield Kurdish YPG fighters from attacks by Turkish forces as they monitored the activities of Iran and its proxies.  

Finally, if the current administration, especially Trump, had been forthright in calling for a fully transparent investigation of the Khashoggi murder rather than declaring the non-culpability of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman almost immediately, its credibility as an honest broker would not have been damaged. Many Turks, including Erdoğan, may question if the United States can restrain its Kurdish anti-ISIS partners from separatist actions when U.S. influence did not prevent Saudi government leaders from murdering Khashoggi.  

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