After US National Security Advisor John Bolton hastily left Ankara last week, as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refused to meet with the man who in Israel had stated that the US would not pull out of Syria unless the Turkey agreed to protect the YPG/PKK terror group, Donald Trump appears to have overruled the infamous neocon. Even before Trump’s latest Tweets, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke from Cairo and appeared to clarify that Bolton was mistaken in saying that there would be no US pullout without a Turkish agreement to protect a terror group which objectively threatens Turkey’s national security. On the heels of Pompeo’s statement, Donald Trump Tweeted the following:
“Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions. Will attack again from existing nearby base if it reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20 mile safe zone. Likewise, do not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey. Russia, Iran and Syria have been the biggest beneficiaries of the long term U.S. policy of destroying ISIS in Syria – natural enemies. We also benefit but it is now time to bring our troops back home. Stop the ENDLESS WARS!”
Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions. Will attack again from existing nearby base if it reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20 mile safe zone….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2019
….Likewise, do not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey. Russia, Iran and Syria have been the biggest beneficiaries of the long term U.S. policy of destroying ISIS in Syria – natural enemies. We also benefit but it is now time to bring our troops back home. Stop the ENDLESS WARS!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2019
The Tweets clearly contained something to both please and offend everyone. First of all, Trump has made it clear that contrary to Bolton’s statements in Israel, the troop pullout is going ahead and that Trump believes that it should have in fact happened much earlier than it has.
Secondly, Trump appears to acknowledge Turkey’s legitimate security concerns by admonishing the Syrian based YPG/PKK not to provoke Turkey. Here it must be clarified that as is the case with much of the US media, when Trump says “the Kurds“, he means the YPG/PKK as opposed to the Kurdish ethnic group that remains a peaceful part of Turkish society. This includes over a million Syrian Kurdish refugees who still call Turkey their home.
Lastly, comes the most bizarre and downright insulting part. Trump stated that if Turkey hits “the Kurds” (aka the YPG/PKK in Trump’s vernacular), the US will “devastate Turkey economically” as a result.
Based on Trump’s record of using the vicious tools of sanctions and tariffs as a means of brute force “conflict resolution”, it would appear that Trump is in fact threatening Turkey with sanctions over the matter of the YPG/PKK – a terror group that Ankara has vowed to neutralise with or without US support.
That being said, even though the US based Israel lobby as well as other smaller agitation groups have taken up the far-left violent cause of the YPG/PKK, it still seems somewhat unimaginable that after Trump worked hard to secure a rapprochement with Turkey on several issues over the last several months, that the US would sanction Turkey over defending the anarcho-communist/ultra-feminist YPG/PKK, a group whose ideology Donald Trump likely would despise if he was more familiar with it.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu later stated that Turkey is not opposed to a 30 kilometre deep deconfliction zone (aka safe zone) separating Syria’s northern borderlands from YPG/PKK occupied territory, while Çavuşoğlu further reminded Trump that it was the Turkish President who first proposed such a thing. The Foreign Minister also admonished Trump for his economic threats against Turkey and his undiplomatic use of Twitter.
Therefore, when all is said and done, Trump’s Tweet appears to be more bluster than substance. That being said, there is an important subtext to Trump’s outburst.
At present, Turkey remains one of the most vocal defenders of Iran’s right to trade with the wider world in spite of the US unilateral re-imposition of pre-JCPOA ( aka Iran nuclear deal) sanctions against Tehran and would be partners of the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, Turkey recently hosted a large delegation of Iranian dignitaries including President Hassan Rouhani. During this ceremony, President Erdoğan recited a Farsi poem before his Iranian partners. Erdoğan then re-stated Turkey’s commitment to a growing economic partnership with neighbouring Iran.
Turkey remains one of seven countries exempt from so-called “secondary sanctions” in respect of Iran. This means that for now, Turkey will not be sanctioned by the US as a result of continued purchases of energy from Iran. That being said, Trump’s Tweet alluding to the alleged fact that the US could cause “economic devastation” to Turkey seems to be an inference to what the US could do to Turkey over Iran…if Washington wanted too.
While Turkey has a history of not responding to such disrespectful threats from a fellow NATO ally and while Turkey’s economy continues to grow due to multiple partnerships around the world which would continue even in the event of US economic pressure, the message from Trump would appear to be more about Iran than about the YPG/PKK or even the Turkish deal to buy the Russian S-400 missile defence system.
While ultimately it would be utterly foolish for the US to sacrifice its improving relations with a long standing Turkish partner over a extremist terror group and while it would also be odd for the US to punish Turkey for purchasing the S-400 system after agreeing not to get in the way of its new partner India’s purchase of the S-400s, Iran could be a future red-line in respect of Turkey-US relations unless a deal is made in Syria. In this sense, Trump is using Washington’s trigger-happy anti-Iran sanctions policy as leverage over finalising a deal with Turkey on Syria, even though Trump’s terms appear to be little different than those of the Turkish President, once one strips away the offensive wording.
As Turkey is happy to include a 30 kilometre deep deconfliction zone as part of a larger deal to replace US boots on the ground in north-eastern Syria, Trump’s threat is more of a holistic one than a specific one. It all boils down to the fact that while Turkey remains exempt from secondary sanctions over its partnership with Iran, Trump is indicating that this could change if Trump should grow displeased with the state of Turko-Iranian relations in the future.
This is something that Turkey must understand and prepare for adequately in order to preserve its win-win partnerships with multiple partners including Iran and the United States.