Speaking to a crowd of supporters in Kayseri on Saturday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a stark message regarding the tenuous “calm” across the border in Syria.
“The 120-hour pause on operations will end Tuesday night [and] we will continue crushing heads of terrorists if they don’t withdraw by then”, he said.
The Turks have never been keen on the whole “ceasefire” characterization. For Erdogan, the “deal” struck with Mike Pence last week was more “temporary halt to a massacre”. And never let it be lost on you that the point wasn’t to save lives, but rather to secure a guarantee from the Kurds that they would abandon territory Erdogan wants abandoned. As one Turkish official told the Washington Post, “We got everything we wanted”.
Ankara and the Syrian Kurds have spent the last three days trading accusations, and blaming each other for violating the ceasefire. There’s no consensus on the geographical parameters for Erdogan’s safe zone. America’s Kurdish allies (the SDF) say it covers the 75-mile stretch between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. Erdogan, however, is demanding the Kurds evacuate a much larger area, nearly four times as long.
Of course, this is complicated by the fact that Erdogan is dictating outcomes for a country that isn’t his to administer, something Bashar al-Assad pushed back on last week when the SAA struck a protection deal with the SDF. Now, Erdogan has to figure out a plan, because he can’t very well shell Assad’s troops – that would chance killing a Russian (or three) or a Hezbollah fighter, outcomes which could open the door to a headache he doesn’t want.
So, Erdogan is going to sit down with Putin in Sochi and figure out what to do once Turkey is satisfied they’ve murdered enough Kurds.
Erdogan says Turkey is fine with Syrian government forces operating near the border (that’s nice of him, considering it is, after all, Syria). Speaking to Kanal 7 on Sunday, Mevlut Cavusoglu said Erdogan and Putin will hold “urgent” talks next week in order to “discuss the removal of the YPG terrorists from our borders, namely Manbij and Kobani”.
As Reuters dryly notes, that’s just a polite way of saying that in the aftermath of Trump’s decision to voluntarily cede any claim the US had to shaping Syria’s future, “Turkey’s ambitions in the region are likely to be determined by Russia and Iran”.
While it’s tempting to adopt Trump’s line about the situation in Syria (i.e., to simply say it’s none of America’s business and that the Kurds and the Turks and Assad should be left to fight over territory in the northeast), implicit in that simplistic narrative is the notion that the US can simply inject itself into Mideast affairs, abruptly leave without blowback or, if there is blowback, “go back and BLAST”, to quote Trump.
Needless to say it’s not that simple. And if you’re inclined to say a laissez-faire approach to the region has to start somewhere, you’re then left to explain why Trump is taking an overtly interventionist approach to Iran. Crippling a country’s economy with the hope of engineering outcomes is still interventionism even if you’re not sending in any troops.
And besides, Trump has sent thousands upon thousands of troops to the Mideast since May, meaning his “withdrawal” from Syria is meaningless if you evaluate his promise to extricate America from the region based on the number of US boots on the ground.
When you throw in the myriad personal conflicts of interest Trump has in Saudi Arabia, you could easily argue that this president is inextricably bound up with the Mideast to an extent his predecessor could scarcely fathom.
Finally, even if the US does succeed in taking a laissez-faire approach to the region, nobody else will. That, in turn, means America will look smart whenever other countries stumble in their Mideast forays and profoundly silly when those forays bear fruit.
None of that is to say that an interventionist approach is desirable or that imperialism has a good historical track record. It’s just to say that there are no easy answers. Indeed, there may not be any answers at all – certainly none that Trump has.
[Aside: Cavusoglu also said Sunday that "if the law in the United States works”, nothing will come of the Halkbank case. That’s amusing for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s already been adjudicated vicariously through Reza Zarrab and Mehmet Hakan Atilla – the outcome wasn’t favorable.]