Trump’s Syria Withdrawal Plan Pushes Turkey Closer to Russia

Ömer Taşpınar

When Donald Trump declared last month that American forces in Syria would return home immediately, Turkey was one of the few countries to cheer. Some in Ankara even declared “victory.” For after all, America’s main partners on the ground against ISIS have been Kurdish forces that Turkey considers terrorists linked to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). With the US out of northeastern Syria, Kurdish forces there will no longer be able to rely on an American deterrent against a Turkish invasion. The Turkish military, which already has a significant military presence in northwestern Syria, saw that the only obstacle for the same in the northeast was soon to be cleared.

But what a difference a month can make. Today, instead of an easy path to domination in the entirety of northern Syria, Turkey faces the prospect of the Kurds digging in. So, what changed?

First, there has been, of course, confusion over the troop withdrawal. Some military equipment appears to have been removed from Syria last week, but when will US personnel follow? Or, are we to believe National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who have reassured regional allies that a pullout only will happen once ISIS is decisively vanquished and the Kurds’ safety assured? In other words, contrary to Trump’s assertion, not so soon. Unsurprisingly, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was not impressed. Speaking to members of his party, he said, “It’s not possible for me to swallow this. We have reached an agreement with President Trump.”

But that is not the only thing that will have left him irate. For in addition to disappointment with Washington, there are two other developments that are fueling new Turkish concerns about the Kurds in Syria.

The first is growing diplomatic and military contacts between Syrian Kurds and Turkey’s regional rivals, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Israel. In October last year, Saudi Arabia gave $100 million for stabilization projects in the territories formerly held by ISIS but are now under Kurdish control. Now, these countries also seem interested in contributing militarily to Syrian Kurds. Recently, reports of coordination meetings between the Kurds and intelligences officials from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Israel have been circulating in the Turkish media. 

The logic of Turkey’s rivals is simple. As long as Ankara continues its support for the Muslim Brotherhood – an organization Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE consider a terrorist group – helping the Kurds will be an effective counter measure. The same applies to Israel’s frustration with Erdogan over his support for Hamas.

The other development that has arisen to irk Ankara is Russia’s increasingly good relations with Kurds. Moscow never declared the PKK a terrorist organization and is open to discussion about Kurdish autonomy in Syria. As a result, the Kurds now have submitted a proposal to Moscow that would allow the Syrian government to restore its overall sovereignty over the vast area of Syria taken over by the Kurds since 2012. In return, the Kurds want Damascus to grant them a degree of autonomy, allowing them to continue their experiment in self-governance.

Ankara would, without any doubt, object to any form of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. Thus, it should come as no surprise if we soon see channels of communication open up between Ankara and the Assad regime, aimed at negotiating over the Kurdish situation in northern Syria, as well as the fate of the rebel enclave in Idlib under Turkish protection. 

Erdogan is a proud man who rarely admits failure. He is still reluctant to officially recognize that the Syrian civil war failed to dethrone Bashar Al Assad and that Ankara has to engage him. But make no mistake, he would much prefer a centralized and autocratic Syria than a Syria where Kurds enjoy autonomy near the Turkish border. Ankara will have to come to terms with reality very soon and accept that Al Assad is here to stay.  

Once again, Russia will be in a winning position. Moscow wants normalization between Damascus and Ankara. Vladimir Putin, as the only leader talking to all the players involved in the Syrian conflict, is best placed to mediate between Erdogan and Al Assad. Increasingly irritated by Washington, Erdogan is scheduled to visit Moscow later this month, probably to start the reconciliation process with Damascus. 

Whatever it was that Trump sought to achieve with his December announcement, who can possibly tell except him? But it is fair to say that his key aides understand the ramifications and have been scrambling to repair the possible damage. What they can’t do, however, is change the direction of travel in the relationship between an ally and a foe, as Erdogan is increasingly pulled into the Russian orbit. Moscow’s long-term strategic goal is to weaken NATO, and Trump’s latest move in Syria is pushing the weakest link of the transatlantic alliance further from Washington.

Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.

AFP PHOTO/ALEXANDER NEMENOV