Can US Syria policy keep up with Trump?

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Article Summary
The US president will need assistance from Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman and even Bashar al-Assad to close the deal with Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Syria.

The last few days have revealed, if there was ever any doubt, that the United States cannot rely solely on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in managing the withdrawal of 2,000 US military forces from Syria. The Turkish government considers Syrian Kurdish allies of the United States as terrorists on a par with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS). 

US President Donald Trump therefore will need an assist in Syria from a perhaps unlikely trio: Russian President Vladimir Putin, which may be difficult given the current US political climate; Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who may see a turnaround on Syria as part of his US and international rehabilitation program; and, here’s the kicker, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, whose government will in the end, one way or another, settle or scuttle a deal between Turkey and the Kurds. 

Last week James Jeffrey, the US special envoy for Syria and the counter-IS campaign, advised Syrian Kurdish leaders to hold off dealing with the Syrian government as the United States scrambles to manage the withdrawal of its 2,000 troops and prevent a confrontation between Turkey and US-allied Kurdish groups.

There may be good tactical reasons for the United States to buy time. But the trends are crystal clear, and the Kurds won’t, and can’t, keep such a promise for long. The US military is leaving, Turkey is threatening, Assad is staying, Arab countries are reconsidering their approach to the Syrian government and Putin holds many, if not most, of the diplomatic cards. The bottom line, as we have reported here time and again, is that the bumpy and treacherous road to alleviating Turkish concerns over the People's Protection Units (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) ultimately goes through Damascus via Moscow.

“Moscow may propose to the YPG some kind of arrangement for an engagement with Damascus that would both save Kurdish forces from facing off against the Turkish military and be relatively suitable for Ankara. In the absence of a better alternative, the Kurds may embrace this as an opportunity to have a strong voice in post-conflict Syria. Otherwise the bitter lesson of the Afrin campaign earlier this year might repeat itself,” Maxim Suchkov writes. 

“There are also developments that could force Turkey to consider establishing some degree of a dialogue with the Assad regime, an idea that remains loathsome to Erdogan,” adds Semih Idiz. “The decision by the UAE and Bahrain to reopen their embassies in Damascus — with other Arab states expected to follow — could force Turkey’s hand if it wants to avoid an Arab backlash over its plans for Syria.”

Trump is already working his Arab strategy for Syria. He reminded his followers via a tweet Dec. 24 that Saudi Arabia has agreed to help fund Syria’s reconstruction. Syria will be on the agenda when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Saudi Arabia, as well as the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain this month. 

As the Gulf states reconsider their relations with Damascus and Syria’s return to the Arab League, and as the United States looks to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to finance Syrian reconstruction, a question will emerge regarding US and multilateral sanctions. Next week the US Senate will consider bipartisan sanctions legislation on Syria. More sanctions, however, could constrain regional and international efforts to support a Syrian transition and the country’s reconstruction, including initiatives of the United Nations and the World Bank. As it is with Iran, the United States could find itself boxed in, seeking exceptions to its own sanctions policies to allow allies to fund reconstruction.

The pitfalls of an Erdogan-first strategy in Syria are already showing. US national security adviser John Bolton said in Jerusalem on Jan. 6 that the withdrawal of US troops in Syria will not just be conditioned on defeat of IS and the safety of US forces as they pull out, but also on Turkey’s assurances that it will not attack Syrian Kurdish fighters who have been partners in the campaign to defeat IS.

Bolton’s remarks followed a blistering Turkish reaction to Pompeo's comment Jan. 3 about “the importance of ensuring that the Turks don’t slaughter the Kurds.”

“Turkey is determined to continue its fight against PKK/PYD/YPG and DAESH terrorist organizations which pose existential threat to its national security and target the political unity and territorial integrity of Syria,” the statement read; the PKK is the Kurdistan Workers Party outlawed by Turkey, while DAESH is the Arabic acronym for IS. “Misrepresenting Turkey’s fight against a terrorist organization as an attempt to target a particular group in Syria is totally unacceptable, given that Turkey embraces the entire Syrian people, including Kurds. We strongly condemn treating a terrorist organization as a partner in fighting DAESH.”

Idiz writes, “The concern on the Turkish side is that what Ankara considers to be a legitimate fight against terrorism will be transformed in Western minds into another case of Turkey attacking long-suffering Kurds.” 

Turkey considers the YPG, which is the armed wing of the PYD and which makes up the bulk of the US aligned Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as directly linked to the PKK, which both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist organization. “For Russia, the entire approach to the dealings with Erdogan was not so much about driving wedges between Turkey and the United States as about offering sets of incentives powerful enough to make Ankara want to cling to Moscow rather than Washington,” adds Suchkov. “Russian President Vladimir Putin personally has been meticulously working on this policy for a long while.”

“On the other hand, Turkey has been skillful enough to play both Russia and the United States to extract the best possible deals for Ankara's own interests,” Suchkov continues. “The stress test of the downed Russian jet in late 2015, however, made Erdogan more cautious not to overplay his cards with Putin. Moscow and Ankara have since been more prudent when walking on each other’s terrain. The current state of affairs in Syria makes this experience particularly helpful. Russia shows empathy for Turkey’s fundamental security concern about the YPG and other Kurdish forces. Turkey, in turn, has to side with the Russian agenda on preserving Syrian territorial integrity and on Assad as being ruler of the country — at least for now.”

Just as is the case in US-Turkish relations, however, a “problem is that Ankara and Moscow do not agree on who counts as a terrorist in Syria,” adds Idiz.  

Fehim Tastekin, explaining the differences among Turkish civilian and military leaders about a military operation in eastern Syria, adds, “Russia is trying to persuade Ankara to give up its operational plans and promises a different type of buffer: Deploying the Syrian army to Manbij and east of the Euphrates. According to the Russian thinking, when the Syrian army comes, the YPG’s control will end. The Syrian regime also says it will dispatch troops to the region only when the YPG withdraws."

“Turkey,” Tastekin continues, “suspects the Kurds will devise a formula to remain in the area or under the protection of the Syrian army. While Turkey is struggling between the US and Russian plans, another element makes the issue even more complex: Washington wants to deploy Saudi, UAE and Egyptian troops in the region, hardly friendly forces to Turkey. The plan has already made Turkish officials nervous.”

“Adding to Ankara’s complications,” reports Idiz, “the situation in Idlib is showing signs of getting out of hand. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in Sochi in September to secure a cease-fire in Idlib and establish buffer zones in the province between regime forces and Turkish-supported FSA elements. Under the accord, Turkey is also responsible for disarming groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and expelling its fighters from the province.

“Moscow has said on more than one recent occasion that these objectives have not been met yet,” Idiz continues. “It has, nevertheless, been careful to compliment Ankara’s efforts in this regard so not to sully the positive atmosphere between the two countries. There are also reports that the Syrian army has resumed shelling specific targets in Idlib, raising the specter again of an operation by Russian and regime forces on the province that would undermine Ankara’s plans.”

 “Many in Ankara suggest that the Trump decision further reinforces Russia’s role as a dealmaker in Syria and that all roads involving the situation in Idlib and the east of the Euphrates now lead to the Kremlin,” writes Suchkov.

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