NEW YORK – Many see the Trump administration’s two big foreign policy announcements last Wednesday — the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, and the proposal to sell Patriot missiles to Turkey — as glad tidings for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. With American soldiers gone, Turkey can carry out Erdogan’s threat of a military offensive against Kurdish rebels in northeastern Syria. And the Patriot deal gives the Turkish leader military technology he has long sought.
On closer examination, however, the announcements represent a mixed blessing. A U.S. troop pullout would leave Turkey isolated in a triangular contest among regional powers for influence in Syria. The two other points of the triangle, Russia and Iran, don’t share Erdogan’s objectives. And the Patriot offer puts him in the position of having to choose between U.S. and Russian missile systems, knowing that the loser has the ability to hurt Turkey. And while an American withdrawal from Syria might indeed weaken the Kurds, it does not clear the path for a Turkish offensive — or guarantee its success.
Take the business with the Kurds first. U.S. forces have been supporting Syrian rebels, including the so-called YPG, in the fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad. The YPG is connected to a larger Kurdish organization, the PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish military for more than 30 years. Turkey regards the PKK as a terrorist group — as do the U.S. and the European Union — and wants to smash the Kurdish rebels but has been restrained by American pressure, and the presence of U.S. soldiers in YPG/PKK-held areas.
Once the American soldiers are gone, Turkey believes it can easily defeat the PKK: the Kurdish militants will be “buried in the ditches they dug,” says Defense Minister Hulusi Akar. Much of this bravado stems from the Turkish rout of Kurdish forces in the Syrian city of Afrin in March.
But the Turks may be reading too much into that operation. “Afrin showed that when an insurgency transitions into a conventional conflict against a large conventional army, it will normally lose,” says Howard Eissenstat, a fellow at the Project on Middle Eastern Democracy, who teaches history at St. Lawrence University. “But the PKK can always shift back to unconventional warfare; the history there suggests that it will not be beaten easily.” Besides, the Syrian anti-government militias Turkey is depending on to hold Afrin continue to clash among themselves, a demonstration of the complications of conducting military operations on Syrian soil.
The Turkish economy, already groaning under high debt and inflation, can ill afford a protracted war, or expensive postwar nation-building.
That’s assuming Erdogan will even be allowed to achieve his goals in northeastern Syria. Suat Kiniklioglu, a former Turkish member of parliament and now a researcher at Oxford University’s Middle East Center, is skeptical that the other regional powers will allow an all-out Turkish offensive. “Russia and Iran would be reluctant to see more (Syrian) territory under Turkish control,” he says. More likely, they will try to “facilitate some sort of working relationship between Ankara and Damascus.”
Russia and Iran are keen to restore all of Syria to Assad’s control, whereas Turkey, in common with the U.S., wants the dictator gone. When the Americans have vacated the field, says Kiniklioglu, Moscow and Tehran will “feel more confident about calling the shots in Syria.”
Moscow’s cooperation will be especially critical to the success of any Turkish operation against the Kurds. The Afrin offensive required cooperation from the Russians, who allowed the Turks to use Syrian airspace.
Erdogan was able to secure Russian cooperation because he knew Moscow was keen to drive a wedge between Turkey and the U.S. “So far, Turkey has been able to play off the U.S. and Russia,” says Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul think tank Edam. “That possibility now evaporates.”
It could get worse, thanks to the Trump administration’s offer of the Patriot system. Turkey has placed an order for a Russian S-400 missile defense system but may have to cancel it in order to get the Patriot deal. The U.S. Congress is already seeking to block Turkey’s acquisition of F-35 jets if it goes ahead with the S-400 purchase. The U.S. and its NATO allies worry that installing the S-400 in the Turkish defense network would give Russia valuable intelligence about the latest-generation Western-made jets like the F-35, as well as insights into NATO tactics.
On the other hand, backing out of the Russia deal would put the Turkish leader in bad odor with President Vladimir Putin. “Turkey can’t afford to annoy Russia, not only because of its Syria objectives, but also because of its energy policies, which are very dependent on Russia,” says Selim Koru, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey. In addition to selling Turkey natural gas, Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. The two countries are also collaborating on a major gas pipeline.
Rather than glad tidings, then, the twin announcements from Washington may well bring Erdogan a sense of foreboding.
Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.