Invading Syria: a Honey Trap for Erdoğan

The criticism against President Trump for abandoning the Kurds notwithstanding, his decision to allow the Turks to enter northern Syria appears to have been the outcome of strategic thinking. Erdoğan appears to have won the negotiations, but in the long run he has a lot to lose. Commentary


Photo: AP

The discourse that evolved around the entrance of the Turkish Army into northern Syria over the last few days tends to judge the Trump administration unfavorably. The prevailing views maintain that Trump abandoned the Kurds to the Turks after they had supported him over the last few years in the war against ISIS, in Syria and Iraq. The reason, according to that reasoning, was cold, calculated economic considerations. Trump even announced that publicly through his Tweeter account. While I am not a defense counsel for President Trump, I would like to address another angle of that discourse, which maintains that the USA actually intends to lead Erdoğan into a honey trap.

If one were to assume that the withdrawal of the US forces from northern Syria in order to allow the Turks to enter was a calculated move, then the question of its objective would arise. Well, allowing the Turkish Army to enter northern Syria could be used by the Americans to undermine Erdoğan's power. Since the affair involving the acquisition of the S-300 air-defense system from Russia, Turkey has evolved into a problematic country for NATO. On the one hand, US nuclear weapons intended against Russia are stored on Turkish soil, and Turkey also serves as a barrier against immigration between Asia and Africa and Europe. On the other hand, Erdoğan has been playing with the Russians and undermining US interests like the Kurds, Israel and so forth. There were even indications in the media regarding Turkish support for ISIS while the Islamic State was fighting against American forces. Turkey also helps Iran evade US sanctions.

As such, Turkey is a challenge for US foreign policy. While the White House has threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey for acquiring Russian-made weapon systems, it has not actually implemented those sanctions. In this context, Erdoğan's recent entrance into Syria has enabled President Trump to promptly impose sanctions on Turkey using an executive order. This will include sanctions against Erdoğan himself if the USA so decides. The US Legislature is currently discussing new legislation that would enable conditional sanctions to be imposed on Turkey and on anyone assisting it in its combat operations in northern Syria.

Allowing Erdoğan to enter northern Syria has also allowed the European Union to impose an arms embargo on Turkey, a move intended to weaken the Turkish defense industry and military. The EU could not make this move before Erdoğan entered Syria. Erdoğan's "breaking of the rules" has enabled economic and logistic measures to be taken against his country. In other words, the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria has enabled the implementation of various tools and measures against Turkey which could not have been imposed otherwise, owing to the political sensitivity around Turkey, as stated – a member of NATO, storing nuclear weapons and serving as a barrier against undesirable immigration into Europe.

Undermining Erdoğan's Status

The public discourse in the USA has once again started to address the question of the US nuclear weapons stored in Turkey. This has been a blunt hint for Erdoğan that he might be left facing Russia with no nuclear deterrence. Erdoğan is fully versed in the military history of Turkey and fully understands the potential implications of a US abandonment opposite Russia.

Another aspect in this context is Turkey's aspirations to remain in northern Syria permanently. If Erdoğan implements this threat, the Americans may arm the Kurds and other organizations in the area with suitable weapons and inflict casualties on the Turkish Army. Along with economic sanctions, Turkish servicemen's coffins arriving in Ankara could undermine the public support for Erdoğan.

Additionally, Turkey's entrance into northern Syria inserts a wedge into Russian aspirations in Syria. President Putin wants territorial integrity, and as far as the USA is concerned, if that is important for him – let him fight the Turks. Allowing the Turkish Army to enter Syria produces a divide-and-rule equation between Russia and Turkey that could play into the White House's hands. The USA, for its part, retains response and surveillance capabilities in Iraq and the Gulf states. Britain operates such capabilities out of Cyprus.

All things considered and factored, it would seem that the criticism against President Trump notwithstanding, his decision to allow the Turks to enter northern Syria has been the outcome of strategic thinking. Admittedly, the Kurds are suffering, but meanwhile the death and injury count remains low, and following Vice President Pence's visit to Turkey it appears that Erdoğan's intentions to initiate a population exchange in the security cordon met with US objection. The US withdrawal may generate a positive momentum in the near future, even for the Kurds.

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