Erdogan & Trump: Can the Confict over Syria be Resolved?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Two really big egos met Tuesday at the White House, as Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan consulted with Donald Trump.

The two countries are deeply divided over Syria policy. Syria is actually several wars at once:

Rebels are fighting the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad.

An al-Qaeda-linked group is allied with the rebels and spearheading the fight against the regime in the northwest.

ISIL (ISIS, Daesh) is ensconced in the east, imposing a radical fundamentalist cult. It opposes the regime, the rebels and the Kurds.

The Kurdish Democratic Union party controls the northeast. It opposes ISIL and has bad relations with Sunni Arab fundamentalist rebels.

So which of these fights do outside powers prioritize?

The US says, go after ISIL first. That means allying with the Kurds, the only group on the ground with the will to defeat ISIL as its top goal, since ISIL is an aggressive neighbor and has it in for the Kurds.

Second, the US says, al-Qaeda in the northwest needs to either be defeated or to radically de-radicalize.

A tertiary US goal is to see al-Assad step down under pressure from what Washington sees as ‘moderate rebels.’

The conflict between the US and Turkey is mainly about how you order these priorities.

Turkey says:

Goal number one is to defeat the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of the Syrian Kurds and make sure it is subordinated to whatever Arab government emerges in Damascus. Ankara sees the PYD and its paraamilitary, the YPG, as linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party, which both Turkey and the US tag as a terrorist organization.

Overthrowing al-Assad is task number two, which means strong backing for the Sunni Arab rebels and winking at the al-Qaeda connection of some of them.

Erdogan goal number three, if it can someday be gotten around to, is to roll up ISIL. But maybe leave it there for a while to put pressure on al-Assad from one side and the Kurds on the other.

Inasmuch as Erdogan has backed Sunni rebels in the far north of the country against ISIL, it wouldn’t be true to say he’s done nothing against the phony caliphate. But rolling it up in Raqqa just isn’t his top priority.

So the US is backing the Kurds as its number one priority, in order to get at ISIL, and that is the opposite of Turkey’s policy.

The Syria priorities have roiled relations between the two countries, for which ERdogan blames the Obama administration.

Erdogan said as he was going to Washington,

“There are Obama’s men in lower positions [in the current administration]. He [Trump] is looking at the situation in Iraq and Syria through the information fed by them. And I say there is no need for the YPG [Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units] or PYD [Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party]. These are terrorist organizations. Considering cooperation with the YPG as a condition to fight Daesh is in fact destroying the reputation of the US and the [US-led anti-ISIL] coalition.”

Erdogan is wrong. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has obviously looked at the Syria battle plan and decided that the alliance with the Kurds is the ony practical approach to defeating ISIL. Moreover, it is necessary for the US to synchronize Syria policy with Iraq, where Kurds are also US allies.

I’m not sure Trump can get his magpie mind around the complexities of Syria. He just patted Erdogan on the back as a good ally against terrorism. Trump has hotel investments in Istanbul, and has admitted that he has a conflict of interest in dealing with Turkey, as a result.

What matters is that Mattis has ordered US priorities opposite from those of Turkey, in continuity with the Obama Pentagon under Ash Carter, and so Washington-Ankara relations are going to remain difficult.

Related video added by Juan Cole:

PBS Newshour: “Trump meets with Turkey’s Erdogan amid slew of tensions”

11 Responses

  1. Interesting assessment, and it could serve to highlight the impact of Trump’s ‘perfectly legal’ conflicts of interest.

    Of course, his intentions would be central to piercing that legal position, at which point we run into his magpie mind (hugely appropriate phrase).

    So, the GOP will back him if he serves their domestic agenda, regardless. That means that sooner or later, very probably sooner, a whole, whole lot of people are going to get unnecessarily killed.

  2. There must be some reason that Turkey does not want a Kurdish state. It seems as much an opportunity for peace with the Kurds as it does an opportunity for future conflict.

    Hypothetically, such a state might temper Kurdish hostilities against Ankara. Although it’s also reasonable to assume that those Kurds would draw power from an independent state, and eventually rise up against Turkey with more power than they have today.

    Of course, that’s looking at it from the outside. The power brokers who have been casting / luring millions of young men to their deaths for generations will probably find a way to re-ignite “tension” regardless of what the rest of us comprehend as an amicable solution.

    I’m not really sure how much more patience the western allies have with this region of the world, but if that patience is tied solely to the existence of a need for petroleum, America will lose that long game to Russia’s vast deposits.

    Not too sure of American long term strategy, anymore. Is there one? because not going to war is pretty freaking easy for 99% of People.

  3. Prof. Cole, Do you agree with the following? After the US, the Kurds, and other forces cause ISIS to lose more territory and scatter, is there an alternative to Assad that can rule parts of that liberated territory? In other words, is it not the case that Assad must be a defacto “partner” of the US in the medium-term?
    Is not some form of federation inevitable, with Assad in control of some important areas?

  4. The USA seems to be playing an ill-considered, short-sighted game (again!).
    They know damn well that there is no moderate opposition that could take over if the Syrian Government was removed. If they achieved their objectives, ie to defeat ISIS and remove Assad, they would likely replace the ISIS caliphate with an al-Qaeda caliphate.
    What an achievement that would be. Fortunately, the Russians would be unlikely to let that happen.

  5. Considering what happened outside the Turkish Embassy in DC yesterday, the Kurds are going to be betrayed yet again.

  6. Going way back, the Trukish political elite seems to have problems with other ethnic groups – Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Bulgarians . . . a pretty lengthy list.

  7. Turkey’s government treats the US constitution with total contempt . . . (NYT)
    WASHINGTON – Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, including his government security forces and several armed individuals, violently charged a group of protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence here on Tuesday night in what the police characterized as “a brutal attack.”

    Eleven people were injured, including a police officer, and nine were taken to a hospital, the Metropolitan Police chief, Peter Newsham, said at a news conference on Wednesday. Two Secret Service agents were also assaulted in the melee, according to a federal law enforcement official.

  8. Prof Cole, you didn’t mention what the YPG relations are with Assad and his allies Russia and Iran. This could matter. Also, what about the problem of holding post-ISIS Raqqa? Can Kurds do that given the inhabitants are Sunni Arab? If not, what good is it to say that YPG is the only force on the ground who can take Raqqa? the aftermath is what matters.

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