US flip-flopping on its Middle East policy shows a severe lack of understanding of the region and negligence for its allies' national security interests.
The Trump administration is all over the map when it comes to US foreign policy. The White House’s constant unpredictability sends shockwaves worldwide with Trump’s tweets from December about the US military withdrawing from Syria being a salient example.
This week, top administration officials are busy travelling the Middle East in a grand effort to ensure Washington’s friends that the US remains committed to defeating the so-called Islamic State (Daesh), pushing back against Iran, and protecting American allies. But not all of America’s allies are taking much comfort in rhetoric from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security advisor John Bolton.
Clearly, the US administration has a major credibility crisis that is undermining Washington’s vital interests in the global arena with the conflict in Syria being a case in point.
On January 8, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan strongly rejected Bolton’s statement made one day earlier in Israel. Erdogan declared that Bolton made a “serious mistake” by pledging to ensure Ankara’s nonaggression against “the Kurds” following the US military’s planned withdrawal from northern Syria.
Of course, by saying the “Kurds”, Bolton was only referring to the US-backed militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of the PKK terrorist group, which has been governing parts of northern Syria since July 2012 and receiving American support since 2014/2015.
Erdogan’s blunt words, made from a Justice and Development Party (AK Party) parliamentary group meeting at the Grand National Assembly in Turkey’s capital, signal Ankara’s growing unease in response to signs that the US may be walking back on plans to withdraw its forces from northern Syria, as Trump announced last month.
Moreover, the Turkish president’s rebuke of Bolton’s statement was about communicating to the Trump administration that Ankara perceives the American leadership’s language to be incredibly insensitive to Turkey’s national security interests at a time in which Ankara is considering possible military action in northern Syria to combat the YPG. Several days prior, Pompeo’s “don’t slaughter the Kurds” remarks also prompted a similar response from Ankara.
The continued use of this language from top Trump administration officials irks Turkey’s tremendously and convinces officials in Ankara that the US remains out of touch with Turkey’s national security dilemmas.
Bolton’s words that Turkey should avoid waging military operations that are “not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States at a minimum, so they don’t endanger our troops” strongly imply that the US-YPG partnership may continue to be a long lasting issue of contention in Ankara-Washington relations despite healthy improvements in other areas of bilateral affairs beginning in late 2018.
Like all states in the region, Turkey finds the Trump administration’s Syria policies to be extremely confusing. Ever since Trump’s presidency began, one seemingly consistent aspect of the administration’s approach to the Middle East was a constant focus on Iran’s malign conduct and the need for Washington and allies to counter Tehran’s regional influence. Yet, the president’s remark that Iran can do as it pleases in Syria completely contradicted Trump’s past statements about challenging the Islamic Republic’s ambitions in Syria.
Doubtless, despite the US administration’s flip-flopping and lack of a cohesive and realistic vision for Washington’s Middle East foreign policy, Turkey will use Bolton’s visit to Ankara as an opportunity to stress Turkey’s major concerns.
As articulated in Erdogan’s latest New York Times opinion piece, Turkey’s government is firm when it assures the world that it’s prepared to shoulder the heavy burdens of responsibility when it comes to dealing with the dangers posed by Daesh’s remnants. In contrast to other US allies, Turkey can point to major sacrifices it has made in the struggle against Daesh in Syria, which Erdogan did when referencing the bloody Al Bab campaign of 2016/2017 in his New York Times article.
A critical point that Turkey will continue emphasising to Trump administration officials is that the Turkish leadership accepts the challenges of working with partners in Syria and beyond to ensure that the conditions which once gave rise to Daesh will not reemerge, and that only through state-building and reconstruction of the destroyed country can lasting peace and stability return to Syria following the US military’s withdrawal.
“Turkey proposes a comprehensive strategy to eliminate the root causes of radicalisation”, wrote Erdogan. “We want to ensure that citizens do not feel disconnected from government, terrorist groups do not get to prey on the grievances of local communities and ordinary people can count on a stable future.”
Unquestionably, as Turkey intends to coordinate closely with Washington vis-a-vis Syria amid the planned US military withdrawal, confusing messages from the White House will continue to unsettle Ankara.
To be sure, America’s foreign policy in the Trumpian era is unprecedented and dangerous in countless ways, particularly with respect this new dynamic in which Washington’s allies are not sure whether America’s Commander-in-Chief, Secretary of State, Pentagon chief, or the president’s top advisers genuinely speak on behalf of the US government.
As Turkey makes plans for dealing with security challenges that may emerge following the US troop withdrawal, there must be constant guessing in Ankara about which US officials should be believed versus ignored when statements from Trump’s administration become contradictory, as they frequently do.
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