24 October 2019

Experts React: Turkey’s Intervention, U.S. Diplomacy, and the Crisis in Syria

When quick decisions are made in a very complex and vitally important region, it is difficult to immediately understand the far-reaching geostrategic implications of those decisions. CSIS scholars have come together to offer brief reflections from their respective portfolios on the most consequential impacts of President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria. 

It is impossible to describe in 500 words the complicated, mistake-laden post-Cold War history of U.S.-Turkey relations or the decisions taken (or not taken) by the U.S. government over the past eight years regarding the Syrian civil war and its regional implications. More significant scholarship is required for those tasks, but this complex history is a testament to U.S. credibility and trustworthiness as an international actor.

Trust and credibility are foundational elements in human relations as well as in international affairs—and in particular, alliances. Because the United States is the backbone of the international alliance system (by its own design 70 years ago), U.S. actions have repercussions on other countries and populations. When trust begins to erode, nations will find ways to test or increase pressure on U.S. commitments or seek other guarantees that the United States will fulfill these commitments (such as requesting U.S. forces be present in the host nation). When credibility and trust evaporate, nations realign themselves with more or less trustworthy or more expedient, results-oriented nations. Trust is destroyed quickly but can only be rebuilt slowly and cautiously over time.

Can America’s word in international affairs be trusted? Historians may come to view the withdrawal decision on October 6 as the breaking point for U.S. credibility. Trust in the United States has been in a state of steady erosion for well over the past decade, but this singular act, as well as recent suggestions that the United States will withdraw forces from other regions, has warned all U.S. allies that nothing is certain and nothing—even strong U.S. economic ties and U.S. forces on the ground—is guaranteed. These decisions have also inspired adversaries who have identified tactical opportunities to fill the vacuum that the United States leaves behind. As these adversaries more fully enter a region, U.S. allies step back, and the United States becomes a more insecure country.

Director and Senior Associate, Turkey Project

President Donald Trump’s fateful October 6 telephone conversation with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which he committed himself to finally implementing his long-standing intention to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, effectively cleared the way for the launching of a military operation by Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces three days later against the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in control of northern Syria east of the Euphrates. Trump’s action, which aimed at eradicating the long-standing irritant stemming from the tactical U.S. engagement with the YPG against the Islamic State on the U.S.-Turkish agenda and thus to clear the way to smoother relations, instead created additional convulsions in the troubled alliance as well as in U.S. domestic politics.

The move set off an unprecedented firestorm of criticism in Washington, most notably from Trump’s congressional allies previously reluctant to criticize him openly, for abandoning the Syrian Kurds, which forced Trump to respond to the Turkish military incursion with a preliminary set of sanctions designed to underline his willingness to “destroy the Turkish economy” if Erdogan did not end the operation. In a further effort to placate his critics while simultaneously reinforcing his message to Erdogan, Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and new National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien to Ankara to meet with Erdogan on October 17.

Trump undercut their leverage the day before their meeting with Erdogan through rambling public comments as well as the release of the poorly drafted and undiplomatic letter he had sent to Erdogan on the first day of the operation in which he had called on him to negotiate with the YPG, which Turkey sees as a terrorist extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) it has been fighting for decades. Nonetheless, emerging after marathon talks at the Presidential Palace, Pence was able to announce an agreement on “a 120-hour pause” in Turkish military operations to “allow the withdrawal of YPG” from a 20-mile deep “safe zone” beyond the Turkish border as Trump had originally suggested to Erdogan. Pence added that the military operation would be “halted” after completion of the withdrawal when the U.S. sanctions would also be lifted. Significantly Pence did not address Erdogan’s stated goal of resettling up to 2 million of the nearly 4 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.

It remains to be seen whether the YPG, which feels it has been abandoned by Trump, and has struck a deal with the Syrian regime under Russian auspices involving the return of government forces into the Kurdish area, will fully implement its part of the deal as Pence claimed. It is also not clear how Russia, whose position in Syria has been immeasurably strengthened by the abrupt U.S. military withdrawal, will respond. It is noteworthy that Erdogan is due to visit Russian president Vladimir Putin on October 22 prior to his previously scheduled meeting in Washington with Trump on November 13.

Immediate attention will now turn to Congress to see how it will react. On October 16, the House of Representatives approved, with the support of the majority of Republican members, a resolution opposing Trump’s decision to withdraw and calling for continued support for Syrian Kurds. There may still be additional congressional moves, most notably the proposed Countering Turkish Aggression Act of 2019 drawn up by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), which includes sanctions on Turkish institutions and officials, prohibition on military transactions, and the imposition of secondary sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Needless to say, such congressional action will only complicate the management of this difficult relationship.

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