Ankara (GPA) – In lieu of US troops protecting Syrian Kurds, Trump has threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if they move on the YPG.
The last few weeks have been a full-on media panic following US President Donald Trump’s decision to remove US troops from northern Syria. One of the major concerns of those crying out in favor of US forces remaining in Syria is the fate of the primarily Kurdish US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
For a moment last week, it seemed as if the warmongers in the west were going to get their way as Trump officials began to give statements contradicting Trump’s plans to pull out of Syria. Most prominent among the detractors was National Security Advisor John Bolton.
In a meeting in Israel last week, not only did Bolton contradict Trump’s claims that the Islamic State (IS) was completely defeated, he also promised that US troops would not be withdrawing from Syria. On top of that, Bolton claimed Trump’s initial 30-day, then his four-month timelines for withdrawal were out the window and the US wouldn’t be leaving until Turkey meets “the President’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with [the US] are not endangered.”
Following this trip by Bolton, however, it seems Trump did actually take charge for once. This came out over the past few days when reports started emerging that US troops actually were packing up equipment (although apparently not the actual soldiers yet) in Syria in preparation to leave.
With this going on in the background, it was Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who declared that the US is, in fact, drawing down in Syria to some extent. He then went on to clarify that this didn’t mean the US was disengaging from Syria but that this is merely a “tactical change.”
These statements by Pompeo and Bolton fail to leave any real future Syria strategy unclear. Both men seem to be treading carefully, likely in an effort to avoid angering Donald Trump but also in an effort to try to keep US relations with NATO-ally Turkey somewhat stable.
Turkey has been extremely concerned with Trump’s Syria policy lately since a call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Erdogan that was allegedly the catalyst for Trump’s withdrawal announcement. At the time of the call (and currently) Turkey promised to move into northern Syria to take out the SDF, which they consider an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a NATO-designated terror group, regardless of whether they were with US troops or not.
While a lot of people were trying to figure out what exactly would happen if the US and Turkey ended up facing off in northern Syria it does now seem as if Trump is looking to avoid any kind of military confrontation. Instead, over the weekend, Trump unveiled his new strategy to put Turkey in their place by threatening renewed economic war with Ankara via twitter.
Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions. Will attack again from existing nearby base if it reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20 mile safe zone….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2019
Trump is no stranger to economically punishing his own allies for what he sees as disobedience and this has already been done with Turkey in the last few months. The Turkish economy is already currently at an all-time low and has already dealt with sanctions on officials and businesses from Washington during last year’s dispute over detained US pastor Andrew Brunson.
After Brunson was released, the sanctions on Turkey were lifted but even slightly better relations with the west haven’t really helped the economy. Turkey’s economy is in a slump for a multitude of reasons including long periods of irresponsible lending at low rates, but the sanctions and tension with the US still did hurt the markets and the value of the lira.
Turkey is going to have to find alternate ways to pull out of this slump than dealing with the US and hoping for improvement. Erdogan clearly has his own policy goals that aren’t compatible with Washington’s.
There should be a concern for Trump though that, if he pushes too hard, Turkey may end up going to Russia, China, and most problematic for Trump, Iran, as new steady trading partners. China has already offered some investment in Turkey but is limited by Ankara’s standing in NATO and the European economic zone on how much they can do.
Turkey also has no issues skirting sanctions, as they have done with Iran in the past; or with trading with US adversaries such as Venezuela. It’s unclear how exactly Trump’s economic strategy would make this any better, or even get Turkey to stop military operations they were already planning during this recession anyway. Turkey is likely to go through turbulent times in the near future anyway, so Trump will need to play this new strategy carefully.
As of now, it seems that Trump May want to examine these previous instances of independent Turkish policy and do his best to ensure Turkey will not carry on regardless of US policy. It’s hard to say which way this will go but so far Ankara doesn’t seem worried. Following Trump’s twitter threat, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu responded by warning the US that “You cannot get anywhere by threatening Turkey economically,” and “will not fear or be deterred by any threat.”
James Carey is an organizer based in Detroit, Michigan, founder of Geopolitics Alert, and an experienced analyst on Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Turkey. He also covers topics ranging from Latin America and Asia to Europe. You can also hear James in his weekly podcast; The Left is Dead which he co-hosts with investigative journalist Jake Anderson.