US still lacks a coherent agenda in Syria
U.S. President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton’s visit to Turkey was an important opportunity to clarify some of the vagueness that stemmed from the conflicting statements coming from Washington, D.C. in the last three weeks in regards to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.
Due to the credibility gap that the United States suffers from its Syria policy, after President Trump announced the decision to withdrawal, there were still many question marks in regards to the implementation of this decision. Following the two phone calls between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Donald Trump, the multiple statements about the timeline and the type of withdrawal generated serious concerns for the Ankara administration. Considering the previous instances of unfulfilled commitments and promises from the U.S., this ambiguity constituted a serious risk for the future of American-Turkish relations and a high-level visit in the midst of this ambiguity could have helped alleviate this problem.
However, the visit did exactly the opposite. For the last four years, some U.S. officials have made statements and taken actions that have created hard-to-fix damage to the U.S. image in Turkey. The lack of sensitivity for Turkey’s security concerns, the cozy pictures with members of a group recognized as a terrorist organization and the use of social media to glorify this terrorist group generated the rise of anti-American feelings among the Turkish people.
Following the decision of President Trump to withdraw from Syria, there was cautious optimism among some in Turkey in regards to ending this morally wrong and legally problematic partnership between the U.S. and the People’s Protection Units (YPG). However, just before the arrival of U.S. National Security Adviser Bolton, some members of the U.S. administration did everything possible to destroy this optimism in Turkey. It was as if these members of the administration were doing their best to prevent a working relationship between Turkey and the U.S.
First of all, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke in an interview about preventing Turkey from “slaughter[ing] Kurds.” Many in Turkey from the beginning doubted that it was a translation mistake. Turkey, for many years, has been a safe stop for Kurds fleeing from the brutal regimes and actors in the Middle East.
Hundreds of thousands Iraqi Kurds, for example, took refuge in Turkey following the atrocities of the late Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. Later in the Syrian civil war, again, hundreds of thousands of Kurds entered Turkey to escape from the brutal Assad regime and Daesh terrorism. More importantly, even those who fear suppression by the YPG sought help in Turkey. Under these circumstances those who expected this statement to be a translation error were right to assume that, but Mike Pompeo never fixed this statement based on factual errors. Turks considered this statement an offense not only to Turkey but also to Kurds, who were being identified wholly by a terrorist organization by the U.S. secretary of state.
The damage was done. And while everybody was hoping for it to be the last public relations disaster on the part of the U.S., another statement came from Bolton just before arriving in Turkey. Everybody by now was shocked by the enthusiasm shown by Bolton and Pompeo in making so many statements in such a short period of time.
Both of them, time and again, were contradicting the president’s statements. Pompeo repeatedly stated that the U.S. would continue to challenge the Iranian presence in Syria while President Trump stated that Iran can do whatever it wants in Syria. Bolton also tried to bring some conditions for the U.S. withdrawalfrom Syria, which were rebuked by the president shortly after. However, they continue to make statements and these statements have started to contradict not only the president but also their own earlier statements.
In this frenzy of statements, Bolton asserted that he was going to be in Ankara in order to give a warning to Turkey “not to kill the Kurds in Syria.” This statement demonstrated that as a national security adviser, Bolton does not understand the policy or the sensitivity of Turkey when it comes to this issue.
First of all, by Kurds if he really meant the Kurds in northern Syria just like Pompeo, Bolton was making another offensive comment about Turkey and Kurds at the same time. Secondly, if in his statement he meant the YPG, he had to know by now that Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization and the U.S. had to recognize it as such long ago. Of course by making this statement just before his arrival in Turkey, he practically closed the door on himself.
President Erdoğan in his statements on Tuesday openly criticized Bolton and said he will discuss these matters with President Trump. It is unfortunate for the U.S. administration to have top foreign policy and national security actors, who are supposed to resolve challenges in relations and strengthen alliances between states, make such statements, which will hurt ties with a key NATO ally. Following this visit it will be up to the presidents of the two countries to move things forward in order to mend the ties between the two countries.
This article was first published by Daily Sabah on January 12, 2019.