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Ilhan Tanir
Jan 14 2019

Trump tweets may bring new crisis ahead of Turkey elections

Sundays are U.S. President Donald Trump's favourite days for tweeting.

Last weekend, the New York Times said the Federal Bureau of Investigation had begun an inquiry into whether Trump was spying for Russia. The U.S. law enforcement officials had become so concerned by the president’s behaviour that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests, according to the report.

After the story in the New York Times, another piece of news published by the Washinton Post on Sunday shook the United States. It said Trump had concealed details of his face-to-face encounters with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, even from senior officials in his administration.

On Sunday morning, Trump vented his fury and targeted the FBI, New York Times and the Washington Post on Twitter. He vehemently denied the claims against him and again threatened to declare a national emergency to fund his border wall.

Then, on Sunday evening, Trump expanded his focus from domestic problems to the Middle East and tweeted about Syria. His tweets were so confusing that they had Turkey policy specialists and the Middle East analysts debating their meaning throughout the night.

Although his exact meaning remained unclear, everyone agreed on one thing: Trump's tweet had marked the first public threat towards Turkey, a NATO ally. He openly threatened to "devastate Turkey economically" if it attacks Kurdish forces in Syria following a planned pullout of U.S. troops.

Hence, the international media and leading TV channels in the United States focused on this explicit message.

AFP echoed the message as saying "Trump warns Turkey faces economic devastation if it hits Kurds."

CNN also highlighted Trump's tweet in a headline reading, "President Trump threatens to ‘devastate’ Turkey's economy if they attack Kurds in Syria.”

Likewise, prominent Turkey specialist Steven A. Cook pointed to Trump’s statement, but also warned that threatening to “devastate” the country economically is not in the interest of the United States.

If we try to paraphrase Trump's message to make it more understandable, this is what we get:

If Turkey hits the Kurds, the United States will devastate it economically. Also, Washington will create a 20-mile safe zone in the region, and Trump urges Kurds not to provoke Turkey.

In his tweet, Trump said the United States would continue to hit the Islamic State from many directions. Based on his sentence structure, we can tell the 20-mile safe zone will be created by the United States, not by Turkey. But, in this case, another question emerges. If Washington is withdrawing from the region, how will it create a safe zone? It is impossible to build a safe zone in the region without American soldiers' presence.

As a result, Trump appears to have given the green light to Turkey on the creation of a safe zone, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan desires, but it is still unclear who will do it and how it will be done.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remarks to reporters on his way back to the United Stats have done nothing to clarify Trump’s intentions. Here is what Pompeo said on Jan. 14:

With respect to those tweets, the issues along the Syrian-Turkey border in the north, we continue to have conversations… The President’s aim there, I think, is… which is that we want to make sure that the folks who fought with us to take down the caliphate in ISIS have security, and also that terrorists acting out of Syria aren’t able to attack Turkey. Those are the twin aims.

And so the precise methodology which by we will achieve that – that security for both of those elements along that border – is something we’re still working on. And so if we can get a space – call it a buffer zone, others might have a different name for it – if we can get the space and the security arrangements right, this will be a good thing for everyone in the region.

When there was a follow up question about what this answer meant in terms of practicability, Pompeo simply repeated, “there’s lots of things under discussion. There are lots of possibilities about how we might achieve the end state that I described in my earlier response.”

Therefore, as of the morning of Jan. 14, the top U.S. diplomat still cannot clarify what the president meant by the buffer zone. We may need to wait several more days to see if the Pentagon and State Department can come up with any specifics.

The phone call between the presidents of both countries on Jan 14 did not clear the details either. On the phone call, the White House readout does not include any buffer zone reference as the Turkish government's readout touches.

When we look at the map and compare with Trump’s 20-mile (32 km) buffer zone proposal, we see that that this includes most of the prominent Syrian Kurdish cities such as Kobani, Kamishli and even Hasakah and Ayn-i Issa. If we accept that the Turks will be creating and guarding this buffer zone, does that mean the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces will leave these most prominent Syrian Kurdish cities to further south? If so, where precisely in the south are the approximately 20,000 to 30,000 trained Syrian Kurdish fighters supposed to live?

We can make one clear deduction on Washington's possible acts from Trump’s tweet: Turkey will be punished if it attacks to Kurds. This reminds us of the case of American pastor Andrew Brunson. In August 2018, Trump imposed trade sanctions on Turkey when Brunson was not released from the prison, a dispute that eventually dragged Turkey into a severe economic crisis in which the Turkish lira lost 40 percent of its value against the dollar.  

Ten weeks before Turkey's local elections, Erdoğan very well may see the United States as a significant threat once again after Trump's tweets.

Once again, Erdoğan will be a leader who fights against “U.S. imperialism,” and if he enters Syria, despite Trump's threats, he will be able to present himself to voters as the only statesman who can stand up to the vulgar American president.

In a time when IPSOS polls show that 59 percent of Turks see the weak economy as the biggest problem facing the country, ahead of terrorism concerns, appearing to be “fighting” against the United States would be an advantage for Erdoğan in the election campaign.

Remember how the Erdoğan government stood up to the Dutch government days before the 2017 referendum? It was total theatre but that invented conflict helped both Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Dutch government win their respective elections, which were held within weeks of each other.

Let's wait and see how this dispute between the two NATO allies will affect Turkish elections, will they be 'friends' or 'foes'?