President Trump’s America First policy benefits Turkey and rattles allies in Syria

Emad Mekay, IBA Middle East Correspondent

The recent Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria appears as a plan wholly concocted in Ankara. But a closer look reveals that the idea may have sprouted, at least in part, on the campaign trail to the White House in 2015.

Then-candidate Donald Trump promised to bring US troops home and let regional powers shoulder more military burden. In December 2018, President Trump announced a withdrawal of US forces from Syria, coupled with ‘a transfer of primary duties’ to defeat ISIS remnants to allies. Turkey saw an opening and on 8 October, the Turks moved in.

Ensuing claims by European countries that Trump’s foreign policy was unpredictable were either disingenuous or they simply hadn’t been paying attention. Not as closely as the Turks anyway. President Trump has consistently questioned why Middle Eastern and European allies expected the US to foot the bill for what he described as their fights. He told his supporters that he would assign more of the military burden and the resulting expense to US allies in the region and globally. During his first overseas trip, which happened to be to Saudi Arabia, the US President didn’t stop prodding Middle Eastern leaders to do more of their own fighting and shoulder more responsibility.

Many Americans are tired of costly military interventions that they have lost interest in, particularly in the chronically troubled Middle East

While there were shy nods of approval in the region, it was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who appears to have most clearly received the message. In response to the controversy stirred by the Turkish incursion, Erdoğan wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Ankara was merely stepping up in Syria where others have failed. He reminded critics that it was his country that received 3.6 million refugees since the Syrian uprising started in 2011 as part of the anti-dictatorship protests, dubbed the Arab Spring. And, as if he wanted President Trump to notice, he stressed that Ankara spent $40bn to provide them housing, education and health care.

The argument offered a peek into how Erdoğan so easily won Trump over on the border incursion. What could be more convincing than a budget and burden argument to an administration that is cracking down on refugees coming to the US for exactly that reason? In fact, Erdoğan’s words were eerily similar to Trump's arguments.

The US President and many of his supporters view the Turkish initiative as an on-the-ground translation of his push to get others to pick up the tab. Erdoğan‘s intimation that European capitals were trying to avoid responsibility was a mere echo of early statements from Trump himself, who still demands NATO countries stop free riding on the US taxpayers.

The Turkish move fell in line with another Trump goal: making good on a promise to bring home the troops. While that may not be popular with Democrats and some Republicans, many Americans are tired of costly military interventions that they have lost interest in, particularly in the chronically troubled Middle East, and favour Trump’s ‘pro-Americanism’.

For Turkey, that was an opportunity to repatriate millions of refugees to a safety zone, dislodge fighters from the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - which Ankara sees as a threat - from controlling most of northern Syria, and finally, flex muscle as a regional power for extras.

The catch with this Erdoğan-Trump agreement that enabled the 8 October offensive is that it invited criticism around the world. The fact that Trump may have greenlit the Turkish move by pulling US troops was met with such a ferocity, particularly regarding the fate of the Kurdish fighters who’d allied themselves with Washington in the fight against ISIS. The Trump administration scrambled to modify some details of the plan, if not the overall strategic objectives shared with Turkey.

On 17 October, a Turkish-US statement announced a five-day pause in Turkish military operations. The deal included a withdrawal of Peoples Protection Unit (YPG) forces, part of the SDF, from those areas controlled by the Turkish military. On 23 October, Trump ceremoniously followed up with an announcement of ‘a breakthrough’ in the form of a permanent ceasefire. Trump, who minces no words, said: ’Let someone else fight over this long bloodstained sand.’

Turkey accuses the US-backed Kurdish factions of preventing Arab Syrians from returning home. Erdoğan’s defence of his campaign rested on framing it as a solution to the humanitarian disaster in Syria. Now, the deal gives Turkey a free hand in sending some refugees back to fend for themselves and unload some financial burden.

From a security perspective, Ankara gets a long sought-after buffer zone to keep Kurdish fighters at bay. While there were disagreements with the Americans as to how deep and wide the zone will be, the Turks and their allied-fighters have a border territory that is 30km deep. Not a bad start when only three weeks ago they had almost nothing.

The Turks also win by projecting more power southward. Arab historian Bashir Nafee described what happened in Syria as a rebirth of Turkey as a regional heavyweight that can dictate and execute policy in the region. When the Arab League, prompted by Saudi Arabia, criticised the Peace Springs operation, Erdoğan brushed it aside as a good-for-nothing organization and reminded Riyadh they have been involved in Yemen for nearly five years without having achieved its desired goals.

But it is power projection where some risk lurks for Turkey. Arab countries and Iran, all with fundamental strategic interests in Syria, were quick to criticise the incursion along with the Europeans, with Arab countries labelling it ‘an invasion.’ The Arab League signalled they may be willing to rehabilitate Syria’s Bashar Assad - despite years of war, atrocities and millions of refugees - as a counterpoint to Erdoğan and Turkey’s influence.

Turkey has not completely won over the US on every issue either. Though Turkey views the YPG as an existential threat, it has so far failed to convince Washington that the YPG and the SDF are the same as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both the US and Turkey have designated a terrorist organisations. Given the rage, particularly by the Democrats, in defending the SDF, this is unlikely to change any time soon.

But for now, Trump and Erdoğan’s interests are closely aligned and both can claim some success, if not outright victory.