Who decides on American policy in Syria? Three weeks ago, U.S. President Donald Trump announced to the world that he had decided to withdraw the American troops stationed in northern Syria. But it turns out that Trump's hasty decision, made during a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is falling apart. Ergodan’s joy, as he immediately took up the role of substitute for the Americans in Syria, was relatively short-lived. This week, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton announced during his visit to Israel that the United States would pull out of Syria only after the Islamic State was completely uprooted, and mainly after protection of the Kurdish forces in Syria was assured.
Was this declaration coordinated with Trump? Was it formulated in consultation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes an American withdrawal? We can assume that Bolton still likes his job, because if he had made such a statement without asking his boss, he would likely immediately be fired on Twitter. Bolton also said the U.S. does not think Turkey should undertake military action that's not fully coordinated with and agreed to by Washington – at the very least to avoid endangering American troops.
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Erdogan, in any case, was caught off guard and became furious. "It's not possible for me to swallow this," Erdogan said of Bolton's remarks on Tuesday. The Turkish president canceled an upcoming meeting with Bolton, who had to make due with a two-hour conversation with Erdogan’s senior adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, which ended without an agreement that Turkey would refrain from attacking the Kurds. Moreover, the Turkish administration, which had held off on attacking northern Syria until a message from Bolton, made clear that an assault on the area is imminent.
Erdogan apparently thought that the article he published in The New York Times, in which he presented Turkey as "the only country with the power and commitment to perform that task," i.e. replacing the U.S. in Syria and fighting terror, expresses the agreements reached with Trump. He even detailed how he sees Turkey’s continued control over northern Syria. Erdogan explained that he intended to institute local councils to assist the Kurdish population in managing their civil affairs, and bring about elections in Syria in which only those with no links to terror take part, meaning without the popular defense units that he considers terror groups affiliated with the Turkish Workers Party, the PKK. He also wants to establish a military force made up of all sectors of the population (without Kurdish forces) and wipe out the Islamic State's bases.
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Such an article could have only been written with the understanding that Trump had agreed to Erdogan’s plan, until he realized that he too had fallen prey to the cement mixer operating in the White House. But Erdogan was right about at least one thing: "The lesson of Iraq, where this terrorist group was born, is that premature declarations of victory and the reckless actions they tend to spur create more problems than they solve." That is, Trump made a mistake when he hastily declared that the Islamic State had been defeated. If not, why was there a need for Turkey to step in to finish the job? But Erdogan did not conceal his satisfaction over the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, an action that he believes gives him a free hand to attack the Kurdish forces. Now he has a serious dilemma: whether to attack as he had planned and risk his forces in a face-off against the Americans still in Syria, or wait until they leave, not able to know at this point exactly when that will be, if at all.
But at this juncture, the Turkish decision must also take into account the actions of other countries in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel on the one hand, and Russia and Iran on the other. According to an exclusive report by David Hearst, the editor-in-chief of the website Middle East Eye, the intelligence chiefs of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, and Mossad head Yossi Cohen met in one of the Gulf state capitals to discuss limiting the influence of Iran and Turkey in Syria and the wider region. Hearst quotes a source who said Cohen made clear that "Iranian power is fragile. The real threat comes from Turkey." According to the source, the other participants agreed and proposed a plan consisting of four parallel phases.
The first is to help Trump withdraw some 14,000 American troops from Afghanistan, a proposal that was accompanied by a diplomatic meeting between U.S. officials and representatives of the Taliban in Abu Dhabi. The second is intensive involvement by the large Sunni bloc that won the parliamentary elections in Iraq to neutralize Turkish influence there. The third is renewing ties between the Gulf States and Syrian President Bashar Assad and returning Syria to the Arab league, which would give Assad a means of freeing himself from dependence on Iran and distancing him from Turkey. This decision also went along with diplomatic action, in which the Sudanese president – with the consent of Saudi Arabia and Russia – made his first visit to Syria, the head of Syrian intelligence, Ali Mamlouk, visited Egypt, and the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus. And finally, the fourth phase is to help the Kurds fight Turkey and strengthen diplomatic and economic ties with the Kurdish region in Iraq. If this report is reliable, it shows not only the moves being planned by the Gulf States, Egypt and Israel against Turkey, but also the new strategic priorities, in which Turkey – and not Iran – is the objective.
Erdogan does not need a journalist’s report to know he is standing on a dangerous traffic island with the traffic, heavy and hostile, Arab, Israeli and American, flowing wildly around him. He also cannot depend entirely on his Russian strategic partner, which is working to bring Syria back to the Arab field to attain international legitimacy for it. This road is closed to Erdogan because Turkey is not a member of the Arab League and is in a deep rift with Egypt, and recently also with Saudi Arabia over the Jamal Khashoggi affair. When he sets himself on a collision course with the United States over the security and future of the Kurds, and the Syrians see Turkey as a foreign occupying power, Erdogan doesn’t have very many options left.