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Trump’s Turkey Tangle: Nothing to Win

Stockholm (Ekonamik) – Turkey is preparing to send in military forces into northern Syria with the double objective of wiping out “anti-Turkish terrorists” and to create a “safe zone” to send back 2-3 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday. The invasion is expected to begin within 48 to 96 hours.

The announcement in effect had been made the evening before, when the White House released a document stating it would be withdrawing U.S. forces from northern Syria following a phone call between U.S. president Donald Trump and Mr Erdogan, after the latter announced his plan to invade Syria. “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate’, will no longer be in the immediate area,” the statement from White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham read.

According to one account, National Security Council officials were incredulous as to the content of the call between Mr Trump and Mr Erdogan. The decision amounts to abandoning Kurdish forces in northern Syria, who were the key ally in helping the United States contain the terrorist group ISIS, or Islamic State.

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When Turkey does invade, both its objectives will be extensive operations. Clearing the large Kurdish enclave south of the Euphrates of the Kurdish militia YPG, which Turkey designates as “terrorist”, is likely to involve extensive war. The militia counts thousands of battle-hardened soldiers among its ranks, veterans of the collaboration with the U.S. to stamp out ISIS and the Islamic Caliphate. In addition, Kurds will be not be in a position to flee further south into Syria.

The imperative to move between 2 and 3 million Syrian refugees from Turkey into Kurdish northern Syria will also be an enormous operation that risks ethnic strife, migratory crises, and military confrontation. The refugees come mostly from other regions in Syria, and most are ethnic Arabs – not Kurds. On one hand, these will not necessarily be satisfied with remaining in Kurdish territory. On the other, Kurds are unlikely to welcome the placement of millions of Arabs in their territory.

All of which points to a scenario of possibly genocidal proportions. ISIS has not been fully defeated, contrary to Mr Trump’s claims, and thousands of captured ISIS fighters remain in camps controlled by Kurdish forces, a responsibility Mr Trump says Turkey must take. Turkey undertook a similar operation in 2016 in northwest Syria, exiling or killing both YPG and ISIS forces. This new military invasion will seek to remove YPG from Rojava, a zone administered by the Kurdish party PYD, 30KM deep and 480KM wide south of the Turkish border. Mr Erdogan accuses PYD of being a branch of the PKK, which has fought for autonomy in Turkey’s southeast or decades and which Mr Erdogan brands a “terrorist” group.

Kurds have designated Mr Trump’s decision to give Mr Erdogan free reign as a “stab in the back”. YPG was America’s closest ally in the war against ISIS in a coalition together with the Syrian Democratic Forces and Arab militias in the war to withstand Syrian president Bashar Assad’s dictatorship and genocide. U.S. forces have already begun their retreat.

The Trump administration pivoted Tuesday saying it had “not given a green light for a massacre,” and Mr Trump appeared to be having second thoughts already on Monday, issuing the following statement via tweet, which is worth reprinting in full:

“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!). They must, with Europe and others, watch over the captured ISIS fighters and families…it is time now for others in the region, some of great wealth, to protect their own territory.”

Mr Trump is presumably referring to one of Mr Erdogan’s justifications for the incursion, namely the additional strain the Syrian refugees are putting on Turkey’s economic woes. He appears to suggest that withdrawing American safeguards and giving Turkey a green light to invade means ISIS fighters are now Turkey’s (and Europe’s) responsibility, without mentioning Kurds at all. What he means by his “great and unmatched wisdom” is anybody’s guess, as this move has confounded practically everybody but Mr Erdogan and Vladimir Putin.

Russia, which is a sponsor of the Syrian regime, is insisting on the “integrity of Syria’s territorial sovereignty”. Russia itself has thousands of soldiers stationed in Syria and is demanding the withdrawal of all foreign forces – presumably not Russian ones – as Mr Assad attempts to re-conquer all of Syria with the help of both Russia and Iran. Kurdish forces have vowed to do what is necessary to protect their people and troops – and have not ruled out a deal with Mr Assad.

Mr Putin, meanwhile, would score yet another momentous geopolitical victory in terms of a) Russia’s influence in the region, b) the erosion of American and Western credibility, and c) further diremption of NATO unity, which Mr Trump points to in his tweet above when he suggests ISIS is now Turkey’s and Europe’s responsibility, dividing the alliance into at least three camps. As Mr Trump faces the increasing heat of impeachment domestically, one cannot help but suspect he is hastening to fulfil Mr Putin’s wish list.

Image: President Donald J. Trump participates in a bilateral meeting with President of the Republic of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the G20 Japan Summit Saturday, June 29, 2019, in Osaka, Japan. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead) (Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

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Glenn W. Leaper, PhD
Glenn W. Leaper, Politics Editor, is a political theorist, analyst, editor and writer. He completed his Ph.D. in Political Philosophy and Critical Theory from Royal Holloway, University of London in 2015. His research focuses on ideology, unaccountable structures of power and surveillance capitalism. He is also a communications consultant, speechwriter, interpreter and journalist. Glenn has an international background spanning the UK, France, Austria, Spain, Belgium and his native Denmark. He holds an MA in Literature and a BA in International Relations.

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