Analysis

As Far as Trump Is Concerned, the Kurds Have Done Their Job and Now Can Go to Hell

Turkey's Erdogan has proved that his unyielding stubbornness pays; only Russia can help the Kurds in Syria, but it has no interest in doing so

U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
AFP

In hindsight, the Kurds should have known it’s impossible to rely on U.S. President Donald Trump. It’s enough to count the agreements Trump has broken – including his withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal, his scrapping of trade agreements, his Israeli-Palestinian “deal of the century” that proved to be hot air, his freezing of aid to the Palestinians, and his colossal failure to forge new agreements or solve conflicts – to understand that this is a reckless system aimed at blowing up “old” orders just because Trump wasn’t a party to establishing them.

His abandonment of the Syrian Kurds to Turkey’s expected rampage through northern Syria is just another step in the same march of folly. In Trump’s eyes, the Kurds, who paid in blood in the war against the Islamic State and proved themselves the most effective local force against this terror group, are nothing but a militia that has done its job and can now go to hell.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proved that his unyielding stubbornness pays. After snubbing America’s demand that he not buy Russia’s S-400 missile system and announcing that Turkey would continue buying Iranian oil and gas in defiance of U.S. sanctions, he has made Washington fold on the Kurdish issue as well. Trump has given him a free hand to control northern Syria, build Turkish outposts deep inside Syria (more than 30 kilometers – 19 miles – from the Turkish border) and change the demography of Kurdish districts by turning this area into a “security zone” where he will resettle 2 million Syrian refugees now in Turkey.

The large-scale Turkish invasion of areas east of the Euphrates River will presumably begin in the next few days. The Kurds will meet it with inferior forces that are incapable of stopping Turkey’s armored corps and air force, and much of their territory will be transferred to direct Turkish control. Turkey is then expected to begin a massive campaign to arrest fighters from the Kurds’ People’s Protection Units, members of the Syrian Kurdish party and anyone else suspected of cooperating with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known as the PKK, which Turkey considers a terror group.

Erdogan’s EU extortion

The Kurds’ options are limited. Without American backing and military assistance, they will lose not only the massive financial aid they receive from Washington, but also their ability to control the Syrian oil fields whose profits finance their day-to-day operations. Thus Kurdish districts are facing the same grim fate as the city of Afrin, which Turkey captured, destroyed and made into a Turkish outpost.

The Kurds could negotiate with the Syrian regime, but this is the same regime that for years oppressed them and denied them citizenship. The chances of the Syrian army going to war against the Turks to remove them from Kurdish areas are near zero.

File photo: American troops look out toward the border with Turkey from a small outpost near the town of Manbij, northern Syria, February 2018.
Susannah George,AP

With the United States removed from Syria, Erdogan can ignore European criticism of both Washington’s decision and Turkey’s planned invasion. He has a winning card against the European Union in the form of the refugee agreement he signed with it.

Under this deal, Turkey promised to prevent refugees from moving through its territory to Europe. But Erdogan recently threatened to open the gates and let refugees pass through Turkey at will if the EU doesn’t pay the remaining billions it owes under the agreement, and a panicked Europe is already negotiating with him to avert this threat.

Given this, all the EU can do about the Kurds is wag a finger. Erdogan also presumably raised the refugee agreement and its implications for Europe during the critical phone call with Trump, to convince the president to let Ankara carry out its plans in Syria.

The only power that could still prevent the Turkish invasion is Russia. But Russia has an interest in letting Turkey consolidate its position in northern Syria, because it can then implement the two countries’ September 2018 agreement for disarming and dispersing tens of thousands of armed Syrian rebels in the Idlib district.

A Syrian region under Turkish control could, at least theoretically, let Turkey offer these rebels – some of whom are supported by it – a quiet departure from Idlib. That would prevent a major offensive against them by Syrian and Russian forces that could drive a new wave of refugees into Turkey. The question is whether the rebels would agree to disarm rather than fight back against the Syrian forces, which have already begun retaking parts of Idlib.

Restoring Syrian sovereignty

Russia and Syria also have an interest in returning the Syrian refugees from Turkey and other countries, both to prove that Syria is once again a safe place and to bolster the Arab population of Kurdish districts.

But Turkey’s invasion also poses a major problem for Syria and Russia because the presence of Turkish troops on Syrian soil is an obstacle to their goal of restoring Syrian sovereignty over the whole country. Thus Ankara and Moscow will have to negotiate a timetable for a future Turkish withdrawal that will apparently progress in parallel with the diplomatic process to end Syria’s civil war.

Trump’s decision, made over the objections of the Defense Department and the CIA, could have an impact far beyond Syria and American-Turkish relations. It reinforces the view that Washington has no friends in the Middle East, and that any alliances still in force might be reconsidered at any moment and are at risk of being unilaterally annulled.

Saudi Arabia was the first to learn that U-turns are typical of the Trump administration. It was horrified to see Trump not only race toward negotiations with Iran but also brand the recent attack on Saudi oil facilities – which was apparently planned by Iran and carried out by forces answering to Iran – a Saudi issue for which Riyadh must craft a response alone.

America’s abandonment of Syria also plays into Iran’s hands, at least regarding diplomacy. It bolsters the claim that no one can rely on Washington, which abandons even its allies in times of crisis, and that Tehran’s refusal to negotiate directly with the Americans thereby rests on solid ground.

Israel, a blind fan of Trump’s, may also find itself in dire straits due to the “Trump method.” Ostensibly it can rely on Trump to give it a free hand in the West Bank, including annexing parts of it, as his advisers have already said. But the temporary nature of every Trump alliance means leaders must be cautious and suspicious.