Turkey’s Erdoğan won campaign to persuade Trump to give up Syria’s Kurds

While President Donald Trump’s abandonment of the United States’ Syrian Kurdish allies in the fight against Islamic State has sparked outrage among Kurds and bewilderment and dismay among foreign policy pundits, the American electorate is likely to offer a collective shrug.

Most voters in America, especially those who voted for a candidate who promised to end U.S. involvement in foreign wars, will be unmoved by denunciations of Trump’s acquiescence to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s desire to attack the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) and forcibly return Syrian refugees to the tender mercies of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

During the 2016 election campaign, Trump proclaimed his intention to bring home U.S. forces from Afghanistan and Iraq. Like his predecessor Barack Obama, Trump realised most American voters do not understand the reason for U.S. forces to be in a foreign war that had no end in sight. Since coming to office, Trump has emphasised keeping the promises he made during his campaign, sensing the U.S. electorate is more concerned with him keeping campaign pledges than adhering to a strategic vision for U.S. foreign policy.

Foreign policy commentators and analysts will rightly point out the negative implications of precipitously abandoning a battlefield ally whose personnel fought alongside U.S. troops against a common enemy. They will note the message it sends to others on the risks of forming an alliance with the United States. Of course, one could argue that Trump made a strategic decision to favour a fellow NATO country over an ad hoc ally, but that would impart to Trump’s decision-making more depth of thought than it has ever revealed.

Trump more likely saw the arrangement with the YPG as a temporary one from the start, and one from which the YPG benefitted more than the United States. It would be no surprise to learn even that he thinks the YPG took advantage of the United States, just as he has said about other U.S. partners.  

This fulfilment of promises also lies at the heart of Erdoğan’s ongoing efforts to remove the U.S. impediment to his campaign against the YPG. The links between the YPG and the leadership of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey, the European Union and the United States agree is a terrorist organisation, and the leadership of the YPG are disputed. But Erdoğan is convinced the YPG is nothing more than the Syrian branch of the PKK.

Certainly many Syrian Kurds fighting in the YPG have also served within PKK ranks. That the United States would in effect protect what he sees as terrorists is to Erdoğan incomprehensible. In this he enjoys the deep and wide support of the Turkish electorate.

Erdoğan may not have figured out that Trump was ready to cut ties with the YPG, but he certainly knew Trump wanted U.S. forces out of Syria. And, he certainly knew from press reports that Trump was unhappy with having to reverse his December 2018 commitment to Erdoğan to withdraw all U.S. forces and to let Turkey handle mopping up the remnants of ISIS.

Erdoğan patiently worked to have Trump fulfil his 2016 promise to U.S. voters and his 2018 pledge to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. Trump in effect adopted Erdoğan’s view that it made no sense for the United States to continue its protection of the PKK/YPG now that the ISIS threat had been largely removed.

Is there a chance of reversing the decision? No - this time operation orders have been sent to field commanders and the withdrawal of U.S. forces has commenced. Unlike in December last year, there is no opportunity for military or civilian advisors to persuade Trump to delay or modify his decision.

Will Congress do anything on behalf of the YPG or the Syrian Kurds? One need only look at how little the U.S. legislative branch was able to do to punish Saudi Arabia for the murder of Kamal Khashoggi, a U.S. legal permanent resident and employee of the Washington Post to answer that question. Also, with the House of Representatives fixated on multiple committee inquiries into whether or not to move articles of impeachment to the full House for a vote, there is little interest in Congress for making the effort to explain to the U.S. electorate why this decision by Trump matters to them and to U.S. interests.

It is worth noting that the United States has signalled that it "will not support or be involved in the operation" in northern Syria. This is a useful reminder to the Turkish military that by initiating action into a foreign country, it vitiates the protections afforded to it by Article 5 of the NATO treaty. If Turkish forces sent into Syria come under attack from Syria, Russia, or other countries or organisations, they cannot expect any help from their treaty allies. One must assume that neo-Sultan Erdoğan has already made arrangements with neo-Czar Vladimir Putin.  

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