The U.S. Moves Out, and Turkey Moves In

The biggest hitch to Turkey’s ambitions in northeastern Syria was the presence of U.S. forces. No more U.S. forces, no more hitch.

Smoke rises from the Syrian side of the border as it is pictured from the Turkish town of Akcakale in Sanliurfa province
Smoke rises from the Syrian side of the border as it is pictured from the Turkish town of Akcakale in Sanliurfa province. (Demiroren News Agency (DHA) / REUTERS)

Days after President Donald Trump told Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that American troops would not stand in the way of a planned Turkish assault into northeastern Syria, the assault began. American troops pulled back from outposts near the border with Turkey, where a contingent of about 50 to 100 special operators were working with Kurdish-led forces against ISIS. Turkish warplanes kicked off a long-threatened operation that Erdogan has said is aimed at clearing a terrorist threat gathering on his country’s southern border.

Neither the threat of sanctions from Congress nor the threat to “totally destroy and completely obliterate the economy of Turkey” from Trump should Turkey do anything “off-limits” could stop the onslaught set in motion in a Sunday-night phone call between the U.S. and Turkish presidents. In that conversation, Erdogan decried American efforts to cooperate with Turkey on security near the border—the Kurdish militia that controls the area, which has been a vital American partner in defeating ISIS, is one that Turkey sees as a terrorist group. Erdogan has long declared that he would not allow those Kurdish forces, an offshoot of a Kurdish group in Turkey that fought the government there for decades, to establish a proto-state on his country’s border.

The hitch, from Turkey’s perspective: American forces were with the Kurds, and had expressed commitments to the Kurds; moving against them would have required coming into direct confrontation with the soldiers of a NATO ally. If this helped restrain Erdogan from moving in over the months he was threatening to do it, the calculation changed on Sunday. No more U.S. forces, no more hitch.

“Look, Turkey is a large country,” a senior U.S. administration official told reporters Monday as a bipartisan uproar flared, with politicians and commentators across the political spectrum condemning what they called a betrayal of America’s best friends against ISIS. “It’s got a big military … and they’re a NATO ally. So, you know, the United States is not in a position to, and will not be in a position to, fight Turkey over, you know, any actions that it takes with respect to Syria.”

This person continued: “The president has made it very clear, you know, there should be no untoward action with respect to the Kurds or anyone else.”

What the president would consider “untoward” was unclear, but the kickoff of the Turkish bombardment today stoked panic in Washington as well as northeast Syria. “Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration,” tweeted Senator Lindsey Graham, typically a vocal ally of the president. Graham vowed to lead an effort in Congress to make Erdogan “pay a heavy price.”

But Erdogan might not care. Turkey endured sanctions for some of the two years in which the country imprisoned the American pastor Andrew Brunson, then released him last year at Trump’s urging. Turkey has also continued to risk sanctions over its purchase of a Russian air-defense system, though none have yet been imposed—and has kept the system, even though the Defense Department has tried to punish Turkey by refusing to deliver next-generation fighter jets.

Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me the incursion might be limited, as Turkish forces seek to break up the swath of territory Kurdish forces hold in northeastern Syria, as they did with two previous interventions. He said that today’s attacks dispel a persistent myth among U.S. decision makers that Turkey only threatens to attack the Kurds in Syria and never actually does: Turkey has done so three times as of today. In The Washington Post yesterday, a spokesman for Erdogan articulated Turkey’s long-standing position: “Turkey has no ambition in northeastern Syria except to neutralize a long-standing threat against Turkish citizens and to liberate the local population from the yoke of armed thugs.”

A spokesman for the Kurdish forces had reported two civilian deaths as of early Monday afternoon. General Joseph Votel, the former head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees American forces in the Middle East, said at a think-tank event yesterday that it was likely the Kurds would leave the area once it was clear they were outmatched. He said that he was disappointed with the decision to pull back and that it would not have been the military advice he would have given the president. Of his own experience with Kurdish forces, he said, “They protected us every day.”

The Turkish operation may also distract from the fight against ISIS, as Kurdish militia members concentrate on defending themselves rather than on continuing to fight ISIS networks remaining in the country. Kurdish forces are also guarding thousands of ISIS fighters in makeshift prisons in their territory, plus thousands more of their family members—Votel cited the risk of prison breaks if Kurdish forces have to turn their attention to surviving the fight against Turkey. He noted that ISIS initially formed in part with fighters who had broken out of prisons in Iraq.

Cagaptay said Turkey’s intervention is now forcing the United States to confront whether it wants to turn its short-term partnership with Syrian Kurdish forces against ISIS into a long-term partnership—and lose Turkey as an ally. While the United States focused on defeating ISIS, it managed to maintain both relationships at once, despite persistent Turkish security concerns. “This incursion has forced the U.S. maybe to make that decision,” Cagaptay said.

Trump reiterated that the U.S. did not endorse the attack “and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea.” Clearly, the Turks have not taken heed.