U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria unleashed chaos within his administration. Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton ruined his Turkey trip’s chance of success by making a controversial statement in Tel Aviv. He left the Turkish capital with nothing to show for it – except proof of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia’s links to the PKK terrorist organization. By turning down Bolton’s request for a meeting, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated that his sole point of reference was his agreement with his U.S. counterpart. Trump expected Bolton, Gen. Joseph Dunford and special envoy James Jeffrey to negotiate the United States withdrawal’s terms with the Turks. The three men didn’t have a plan, so all they did was hear Turkey’s demands and commitment to launch a military operation against the PKK’s Syrian affiliate.
By contrast, the Turkish president presented his plan to resolve the Syrian conflict after the U.S. withdrawal in an op-ed essay for The New York Times and called for the creation of a “stabilization force” inclusive of non-PKK Kurds fighting among the YPG’s ranks. Erdoğan said that popularly elected councils will govern Syrian territories currently under YPG or Daesh control and noted that local councils in predominantly Kurdish parts of the country will consist of a Kurdish majority. He added that experienced Turkish officials would advise local councils on municipal affairs, education, health care and emergency services. Finally, Erdoğan reiterated Turkey’s commitment to fighting Daesh as well as working simultaneously with Russia and the United States.
That proposal was the strongest sign of Turkey’s determination to do the necessary thing to end the civil war next door. Interestingly enough, Trump’s men have simply ignored the Turkish proposal, which is akin to the Obama administration’s 2013 request from the Turks. Since the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations, Turkey established that it is able and willing to stabilize northeastern Syria after the YPG’s eradication. By extension, the United States could facilitate a lasting solution to the Syrian crisis by coordinating its actions with the Turks. In a nutshell, the only way to counterbalance the Russian, Iranian and regime influences over Syria is for Trump and Erdoğan to work together.
It was Obama leftovers that blocked a Turkish proposal to liberate Raqqa, the so-called caliphate’s capital, in cooperation with the United States. This time around, Trump’s own team is undermining their boss in an attempt to protect the YPG militants and address the Israeli and Gulf concern over Turkey’s growing power. It would appear that they have more tricks up their sleeves.
The opponents of coordinating the U.S. withdrawal with Turkey present two alternatives: First, they say that Washington could hand over areas that it seeks to vacate to Arab forces, backed by Egypt and the Gulf states. That plan is flawed because there is no one to implement it. Weakened by the disastrous war in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia has nothing to offer but money. If the U.S. walks down this path, Iranian militias and regime forces will fill the power vacuum.
Others maintain that the administration must negotiate the terms of the U.S. withdrawal with the Russians. Although Moscow would certainly welcome that move, Iranian militias and regime forces would end up filling the power vacuum again. In other words, the Americans would give the YPG, which it armed as part of a self-described “temporary” engagement, to the Kremlin and Bashar Assad. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Turkey and Russia could reach an agreement on the YPG’s fate. Here’s what Bolton, Pompeo and Jeffrey need to understand: Unless coordinated with Turkey, the U.S. withdrawal will create new opportunities for Iran, leaving the Middle East under Russian influence. In the end, all regional powers, including Israel, would turn to Moscow for direction.
It remains unclear how the Trump administration would explain to the American people its decision to hand over Syria and the rest of the region to Russia. At this point, Turkey’s plan for Syria is the only workable plan. For the next couple of months, negotiations between Washington and Ankara could be bumpy due to the obstinacy of all the president’s men. Regardless, Erdoğan and Trump could make the Turkish plan work against all odds.