Bolton had contradicted Donald Trump’s recent announcement that US troops would be returning from Syria quickly and that ISIS has been defeated. Standing next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bolton warned Turkey not to launch a military operation in northern Syria without coordinating with Washington first. He also said that the US would only pull troops out of Syrian territory once the Pentagon had formalized a contingency plan to shield US allies fighting there — meaning the Syrian Kurdish militias.
The diplomatic row had derailed what appeared to have been an understanding reached between Erdogan and Trump during a telephone call in December, after which the US president announced his decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria within weeks. Erdogan was triumphant: Turkey would take over from the 2,000 US soldiers stationed in northeastern Syria, including a number of bases, and venture unopposed into Syrian Kurdish territory east of the Euphrates. That would have been Erdogan’s biggest gain since his troops marched into northern Syria almost two years ago.
But now he finds himself in a tough spot. He watched helplessly as Russian military police last week entered Manbij — a strategic town that US troops had controlled until recently. His plan for a major military offensive across the Euphrates to target the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey regards as the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization, is once more on hold.
The temporary thaw in US-Turkish ties that dates back to last October, when an American pastor held by Turkey was released, appears to have ended. US House Democrats voted last week to pass a spending bill that hits Turkey with arms sales bans and sanctions. Ankara’s demand that the US extradite exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Turkey accuses of masterminding a failed military coup in 2016, is off the table once more.
Erdogan needed to stretch his muscles in Syria for a number of reasons. The surprise US withdrawal would remove a major hindrance for the Turkish military expansion east of the Euphrates. It would allow Ankara to manage a buffer zone along its borders with Syria; one that would keep Syrian Kurds at bay and prevent them from creating an autonomous entity. And it would give Erdogan the freedom to change the demographic makeup of northern and northeastern Syria.
Furthermore, the Turkish president was hoping to use the US retreat to launch his military offensive against the Kurds in order to boost the chances of his party in key municipal elections that are to be held at the end of March.
But Trump’s indecisiveness and the negative reaction toward his decision to pull out of Syria from lawmakers, senior officials
Adding to Erdogan’s woes is the fact that Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, formerly the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra group, has defeated most pro-Ankara rebels in Idlib and is now controlling key highways and areas between Turkey and northern Syria. The collapse of these rebel groups, which Turkey had organized under the banner of the National Front for Liberation (NFL), means that Erdogan has lost the capacity to mobilize Syrian fighters to do the job that his military is hesitant to carry out.
Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria has prompted Syria’s Kurds to negotiate with Damascus to hand over control of their areas to the Syrian army. In return, the Syrian government has shown willingness to reward them with some form of limited self-rule. This again constitutes a serious setback for Erdogan and his Syria agenda. An attack against Kurdish areas under Syrian government administration would certainly infuriate the Russians and the Iranians, Erdogan’s partners in the Astana process.
In fact, following Trump’s stunt, the Turkish president finds himself at odds with Washington but also unable to rely on Moscow for help. Turkey entered Syria, uninvited, with the sole aim of containing the Kurds. Now that objective is becoming unfeasible. The most likely option for Ankara now is to content itself with a minor role in the Syrian crisis in the hope of cutting its losses and reserving a place once a political settlement is finally launched.