US President Donald Trump has held another phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that has been hailed as a success by both sides. Speaking before members of his AK Party, Erdoğan stated that the US leader remains fully committed to an orderly US withdrawal that is coordinated with the Turkish side, whilst Trump also agreed that Turkey will create a vital 30 km (or potentially larger) safe zone in northern Syria that will help to secure southern Turkey from attacks by the Syria based YPG/PKK terror organisation. The Turkish President again reiterated that Ankara has no quarrels with the vast Kurdish ethnic group but only seeks to target terrorist extremists who endanger the lives of both Turkish and Syrian nationals, including those of a Kurdish background.
Furthermore, after being admonished by the Turkish foreign minister regarding his threat to potentially “economically devastate” Turkey, Trump changed his tune and has taken once again to Twitter, only this time to hail a long term economically viable partnership with Ankara.
Spoke w/ President Erdogan of Turkey to advise where we stand on all matters including our last two weeks of success in fighting the remnants of ISIS, and 20 mile safe zone. Also spoke about economic development between the U.S. & Turkey – great potential to substantially expand!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2019
As Eurasia Future predicted yesterday, Trump’s threat to Turkey had little to do with the situation in Syria and was instead more of a long-term threat regarding the Turko-Iranian partnership. Beyond this, as likewise predicted yesterday, Trump’s erstwhile threatening language represented a further correction to the unilateral foreign policy change that American National Security Advisor John Bolton attempted to make during a visit to Israel and a subsequent one to Turkey where President Erdoğan refused to meet with Trump’s neocon aid.
While the news of a win-win agreement between Trump and Erdoğan has largely been welcomed throughout much of the world, for Washington, the entire saga exposes John Bolton as the weakest of many weak links in the foreign policy wing of the American government.
Insofar as this is the case, it is helpful to remember that it was after a late December (2018) phone call between the US and Turkish Presidents, when Donald Trump ultimately decided that it was the appropriate time to begin a troop pullout from Syria. It appears self-evident that Turkey’s instance that it would neutralise the YPG/PKK and Daesh terror groups east of the River Euphrates in northern Syria with or without US assistance, that helped Trump to reach the conclusion that cooperating with a regional NATO partner was more prudent than remaining in-league with an anti-Turkish terror organisation. As today, Erdoğan criticised the US-YPG/PKK partnership as a flawed byproduct of Obama era policies, it is clear that Turkey and the US both want to move on from the nadir of relations that Barack Obama brought to the fore in 2016.
This week’s Erdoğan-Trump phone call therefore represents one that ought to have happened last week, as both leaders have now further coordinated the terms and logistics of the US pullout and the Turkish operations that will commence in tandem with a phased American withdrawal.
The clear reason why such a dialogue between Trump and Erdoğan did not take place sooner is down to one man – John Bolton. Bolton, like most US politicians and policy consultants has strongly pro-Israel views and as such, Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have convinced Bolton to take a firm and highly undiplomatic line against Turkey. That being said, the difference between Bolton and more reasonable US political leaders is the fact that Bolton seems incapable of apprehending a compartmentalised position vis-a-vis US allies, at a time when such allies have disagreements amongst each other.
When one connects the dots, it therefore appears self-evident that after Netanyahu convinced Bolton of Israel’s genuine anti-Turkey regional pivot, Bolton dutifully carried Natanyahu’s antagonistic message to Ankara. Making matters all the more extraordinary, video surfaced of a television appearance by Bolton from 2016 in which he unambiguously acknowledges Turkey’s legitimate security concerns regarding the YPG/PKK terror group.
John Bolton is probably forgetful. While calling these days for the protection of the #YPG militia, he has attacked the support of the Kurdish militia last year as a remnant of Obama's "inadequate" foreign policy. In addition, the YPG is linked to the PKK, he said. pic.twitter.com/LlopfzSdVD
— Ali Özkök – علي أزكوك (@Ozkok_) January 8, 2019
Thus, it becomes all the more clear that while Bolton is capable of understanding and is in fact on the record defending Turkey’s security concerns, one meeting with an Israeli leader who is rapidly aligning his country with traditional regional antagonists of Turkey, was all it took to change Bolton’s public assessment of the situation.
And yet there were several things that Bolton did not count on or at the minimum, that he arrogantly overlooked. First of all, he ought to have known that Turkey’s leadership would be furious when he spoke on the record in Tel Aviv stating that the US pullout from Syria would be contingent on Turkey agreeing not to fight a YPG/PKK terror group that as Bolton was well aware, poses a severe threat to Turkish security. Secondly, Bolton ought to have realised that by so publicly contradicting statements from his own President, Donald Trump would not be happy to see his authority so publicly challenged and would react accordingly. Finally, Bolton ought to have realised that as Netanyahu is himself on political thin ice in Israel, he is scarcely in a position to start issuing demands to the US, especially when such demands seek to weaken the long standing US-Turkey partnership and consequently, NATO itself.
Therefore, whilst one ought to be thankful that the cooler heads of Erdoğan and Trump prevailed over the hot heads of Bolton and Netanyahu, the fact remains that in overstepping his authority, Bolton endangered the hard won rapprochement between Ankara and Washington and did so in a manner that offered no realistic benefit to anyone involved, including Israel.
Therefore, it goes without saying that Bolton is on thin ice. Not only does Erdoğan know this but more importantly, so does Donald Trump.