January 15, 2019
Despite threatening economic sanctions against the Turks on Twitter, U.S. President Donald Trump still remains committed to withdrawing from Syria and working together with Turkey in the Middle East
U.S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter earlier this week to negotiate with Turkey in his own crude way. The United States “will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds,” Trump tweeted. Followed by his thinly-veiled attempt to appease the designated terrorist organization PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), was an offer to create a “20 mile safe zone” along the Turkish-Syrian border. The Turks were quick to respond that they won’t be intimidated by such threats. “Strategic partners do not hold discussions via Twitter,” Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told reporters. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Communications Director, Fahrettin Altun, tweeted that “the Republic of Turkey is the protector, not the enemy, of the Kurds. Turkey has no argument with the Kurds. Our problem is with the terrorist organization PKK and its extensions in Syria.”
To be clear, Trump’s tweets were unacceptable in the sense that adopting the old “carrot and stick” approach toward a U.S. ally is discourteous. In many ways, the U.S. president’s comments resembled his remarks on Turkey against the backdrop of the controversy surrounding the imprisonment of Andrew Brunson, a U.S. citizen and evangelical missionary who was convicted by a Turkish court on terrorism-related charges last October.
Yet Trump also delivered a message to Ankara that John Bolton, his national security adviser, and other members of his administration failed to pass on to the Turkish leadership. As a matter of fact, the YPG militants and their sponsors in Washington were probably unsettled by that proposal. I cannot imagine that Trump’s critics, who have urged him to cooperate with Russia and the Assad regime instead of Turkey, were thrilled either.
If Trump actually meant what he said, the White House just offered to place a large chunk of Syrian territory, covering the YPG-controlled M4 highway and several residential areas along the border, including Ayn al-Arab, Tal Abyad, Rasul Ayn and Jazira, under Turkey’s control. All the tough talk is nothing but Trump is being Trump – and throwing a bone to the YPG’s international supporters. Despite threatening economic sanctions against the Turks, the U.S. president remains committed to withdrawing from Syria and working together with Turkey.
Speaking by phone on Monday evening, “the two leaders agreed on the need to further strengthen bilateral economic relations,” according to a readout issued by the office of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who “reiterated that Turkey was prepared [for] all kinds of support to the United States, its NATO ally, within that framework… to prevent a power vacuum in the area and deny opportunities to all elements that seek to stop the withdrawal decision from being implemented.”
The Turkish readout of Monday’s phone call also stated that Erdoğan and Trump “exchanged views on the creation of a terror-free safe zone in Northern Syria on the basis of Syria’s territorial integrity.” Given the difficulty of seizing control of the entire YPG-controlled area in a heartbeat and the eagerness of Russia and Iran to fill the post-American power vacuum, the negotiations between Ankara and Washington are critically important. Turkey could focus on the timing of its counter-YPG operation and possibly accomplish its mission gradually. Going forward, it would make more sense to concentrate on the content of Trump’s tweets rather than his language – to which Turkish diplomats have responded already.