Turkey pushes U.S. to let it take over eastern Syria

The goal of Turkey is to pressure the US when the US is distracted by domestic politics.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, U.S. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE)
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, U.S.
(photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE)
Turkey again threatened to invade eastern Syria on Saturday, in a speech where the President Recept Tayyip Erdogan said that the country was ready for a military operation. Ankara makes this threat every two weeks to get concessions from the US. In late July it made the same threats and got the US to agree to a “security mechanism” where Turkey is allowed to patrol parts of eastern Syria with US troops. Now Ankara wants more.
The goal of Turkey is to pressure the US when the US is distracted by domestic politics. It uses Syria every few weeks as leverage because it knows that since the spring of 2018 US President Donald Trump has sought to drawdown US forces in Syria. Trump announced a withdrawal in December 2018 but that was put on hold when his generals noted that if the US withdrew ISIS would likely launch a resurgence.
The US has worked with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group initially made up of mostly Kurdish fighters in eastern Syria. The SDF defeat ISIS in Raqqa, Manbij and eventually near the Euphrates in March 2019, ridding Syria of the scourge of the extremists. This was a costly campaign and the SDF sacrificed thousands with the hope that the US would remain in eastern Syria to help rebuild and stabilize the area. The US made indications to this affect in 2016 and 2017. In 2018 under US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton the US even seemed to pivot to understanding that eastern Syria was valuable strategic land to hold against Iranian encroachment.
But Trump’s view is that the US shouldn’t invest in eastern Syria and that others should play a role. The Gulf states were approached for funding. Meanwhile Turkey wants to take over eastern Syria as it has done in Jarabulus, Idlib and Afrin. Since 2016 Turkey has eyed an expanding role in Syria. It’s goal is to destroy the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, which Ankara says are terrorists. Ankara claims the SDF is linked to the PKK and that the presence of the SDF gives Turkey a right to run northern Syria as a “safe zone.” This is a new form of international law that Ankara has written where countries are allowed to take over their neighbors as long as they argue they need “safety.” The international community and NATO, which Turkey is a member of, have generally given Turkey that green light to do whatever it wants. Turkey already runs bases in northern Iraq where it launches airstrikes on the PKK. It already is involved with Northern Cyprus and has expanded its role in Qatar, and Africa. Turkey is flexing its muscles now in Syria and believes it can step into the vacuum the Americans are creating.
This threatens to spark a new crisis. But Ankara went to the UN General Assembly in September and showed a map of its plan to create a “peace corridor” along the border, sending one million refugees into this area and clearing it, redistributing lands, and creating more than 100 new towns. This is a major program for Turkey to redraw the map of Syria.
To pave the way for its plans Turkey wants to use the US security mechanism of joint patrols to expand it. That means getting the SDF to remove fortifications and then demanding a permanent presence. Turkey says it will “clear” eastern Syria of “terrorists” and “shower it with peace.” Eastern Syria is already peaceful, one of the most peaceful parts of Syria. But Ankara wants to model it on Afrin where extremist groups were brought into replace the locals after the 2018 invasion by Ankara. Towards that end Turkey has shoehorned the remaining Syrian rebel groups into a Turkish-backed faction, complete with Turkish flags at their ceremonies, to use them against the SDF. For Ankara the goal is to use the last remaining Syrian rebel groups against the SDF, neutralizing one independent group that emerged after the 2011 Syrian uprising, with another group. Turkey hopes that getting the mostly Arab Syrian rebel groups to fight the mostly Kurdish SDF will result in just enough instability to make Ankara seem like the benevolent authoritarian needed to run eastern Syria for the benefit of mostly Arab refugees from other parts of Syria. The end goal is to create a belt of Arab refugee towns dependent on Ankara along the border, loyal only to Turkey, and thus a new Northern Cyprus model in Northern Syria. This will give Ankara leverage over Iran and Russia in Syria. It will also humiliate the US and get the US to leave, so that Turkey ends up as a winner and Washington retreats from the region, outsourcing US policy to Ankara, which is what Turkey wants.
TO do this requires careful balance of pressure, threats, crisis and the getting Washington, and US European Command, to argue Turkey’s case in the media, arguing that Turkey has “security concerns” and needs to run eastern Syria. Ankara doesn’t want a conflict with the US, but rather a carefully designed crises mechanism of US withdrawal alongside Turkey’s operation. It would prefer EUCOM help coordinate that.