What Is Behind Trump’s Decision to Allow Turkey to Attack the Kurds?

On October 9, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the beginning of a new military operation in Syria. “The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched Operation Peace Spring against PKK/YPG and Daesh terrorists in northern Syria. Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” Erdogan tweeted. According to Valdai Club expert Alexey Khlebnikov, Turkey doesn’t really want to start a large-scale military operation against the Kurds, since it will come at a considerable price.

On October 5, 2019, Turkish President Erdogan announced his country’s readiness to begin a military operation in northeast Syria against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The next day, a telephone conversation took place between the leaders of Turkey and the United States. Washington then issued a statement, confirming that it was actually giving the green light for the Turks to conduct a military operation. 

The White House statement specified that Turkey could soon begin its “operation so long in preparation” in northern Syria, also emphasising that the United States would not be involved in any way. 

According to Erdogan, Turkey has completed all preparations, drew up an action plan and distributed the necessary instructions for the operation to start. “This can happen today or tomorrow, when we finally clear the way for a peaceful settlement … We will conduct ground and air operations,” Erdogan said. Moreover, according to reports coming from the Trump administration, the US forces have already left observation posts on the Syrian-Turkish border in the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. 

Despite these events and statements, and the very emotional reaction in the West regarding Trump’s decision, the consequences of such a step should not be exaggerated. Moreover, there are a number of obstacles that complicate the beginning of a large-scale Turkish military operation in Syria and change in the status quo in the north-east of the country. 

First, Turkey itself doesn’t really want to start a large-scale military operation against the Kurds, since it will come at a considerable price. Such a decision, if adopted, could drag Ankara into a long military conflict with the Kurds and lead to a lengthy insurgent and partisan struggle by the Kurds. Moreover, there is a high risk of ISIS returning because, in the event of a Turkish attack, Kurds are unlikely to be able to provide security to ensure that its 10,000 ISIS militant war prisoners remain in custody. In addition, if Turkey decides to launch a large military campaign against the Kurds, this could complicate the already tense relations between Ankara and Washington. Let’s not forget that such a decision also risks complicating Turkish-Russian relations, if Turkey goes too far. 

Second, Turkey understands quite clearly that any incident resulting in the death or injury of American servicemen during the Turkish military campaign will dramatically change the situation. In principle, Ankara cannot afford to further spoil relations with the United States, which are already strained.

Therefore, Erdogan is unlikely to launch a large-scale military operation and will conduct limited operations within the zones established and agreed upon with the United States. It is also important to note that during a telephone conversation, Trump and Erdogan agreed to meet in Washington in mid-November. Before this meeting, one should not expect Turkey to launch a large-scale offensive in Syria. Otherwise, it could spoil the atmosphere for a bilateral meeting or even undermine it if Ankara crosses the proverbial red line. One way or another, diplomacy still has a chance until mid-November. 

And, finally, Turkey understands that without Russia and Iran, it will be extremely difficult for it to continue to exert pressure on the US in Syria and resist Washington’s pressure on other issues (S-400, Turk Stream, etc.) and get maximum benefits in Syria. To do this, Ankara needs to maintain relations with all involved parties and leave room for negotiations. In this situation, Turkey needs a limited military operation that will give Ankara control over new territories inside Syria along the Turkish border and compel the Kurds to negotiate with Damascus and Moscow. With all this, Ankara needs to avoid a large-scale military conflict that is neither beneficial for Turkey, nor the United States, nor Russia, nor the Kurds, nor Damascus. The challenge for Ankara here is to maintain a healthy balance between all players. 

Many in the West have already named Moscow the main beneficiary of Trump’s decision to “betray” the Kurds. After all, as a result, Moscow can get what it has wanted for so long – the resumption of talks between the Kurds and Damascus under the control of the central government, and the revival of the 1998 Adana Agreement in any form. The essence of this agreement is to eliminate the Kurdish-related concerns of Turkey regarding its security. In recent months, ​​Russia and Iran have repeatedly underscored that this agreement should serve as the basis for the restoration of dialogue between Ankara and Damascus. 

However, given all of the above, for Moscow the current situation does not look as advantageous as many in the West might otherwise assume. 

It is still not clear whether the US intends to completely withdraw its military force from northeast Syria. According to the latest White House statement, the US Armed Forces would not be involved in the operation and would not be in its immediate vicinity. In other words, the United States won’t leave Syria, only the zones agreed upon with Turkey, and will, remain, generally speaking, in Kurdish-held territories. Thus, one should not exaggerate the consequences of Trump’s decision and count on the Kurds rushing into the arms of Damascus and Moscow. 

In fact, even if Turkey creates a 30-kilometer-wide security zone, the Kurdish-controlled territories will decrease slightly. Moreover, most of the largest oil and gas fields and fertile agricultural lands along the Euphrates River will remain under Kurdish control. Therefore, it seems premature to say that the Turkish military operation will put the Kurds in a dangerous position and threatens their control over northeastern Syria. 

At the same time, Trump’s decision to allow the Turks to carry out the operation once again gives the Kurds a clear signal: there are no guarantees that the US military will stay there for a long time. In December 2018 Trump had already promised to withdraw American troops from Syria, and it is hard to believe that the Kurds haven’t considered the likelihood of such a development of events and alternative scenarios that could guarantee them a good deal with Damascus. 

Thus, it is too early to speak about the “betrayal” of the Kurds by the United States, the large-scale military campaign of Turkey or the unequivocal victory of Moscow and Damascus. The most likely scenario for today seems to be a limited military operation by Turkey in a 30-kilometer zone agreed upon with the United States, which would satisfy Ankara. This is also acceptable for the United States, which, apparently, remains in Kurdish-controlled territories in order to prevent them from agreeing upon a deal with Damascus and as a guarantor of (albeit temporary) their security.

In this situation, Moscow and Damascus can only wait for Washington to make its final decision on the military presence in Syria. Although, on the other hand, the concentration of the Turkish armed forces in north-east Syria gives Damascus and Moscow a chance to take under their control more territory in the province of Idlib.

This post originally appeared in Valdai Discussion Club: What Is Behind Trump’s Decision to Allow Turkey to Attack the Kurds?