On Wednesday, President Donald Trump had a long talk with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The telephone call came in the wake of Erdogan’s most recent demonstration of the fact that under his leadership, the Turkish-American alliance has become an empty shell.
Over his 15 years in power, Erdogan has gutted what had been a substantive, mutually beneficial and strategic alliance between the two countries since the dawn of the Cold War.
Last Saturday, Erdogan sent his forces over Turkey’s southern border to invade the Afrin region of Syria. The U.S.-allied Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have controlled the area, northwest of Aleppo, since 2012.
There are no U.S. forces in Afrin. But the area is predominantly populated by non-Arab minorities, including Yazidis, Armenians, and Kurds — all of whom are pro-American.
The Turks say their objective in “Operation Olive Branch” is to seize a 20-mile wide buffer zone on the Syrian side of their border. That includes the town of Manbij, located a few hundred miles east of Afrin, also controlled by the YPG.
Unlike Afrin, there are many U.S. forces in that city. A contingent of U.S. Special Forces charged with training YPG forces are stationed there. On Tuesday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu threatened those forces. “Terrorists in Manbij are constantly firing provocation shots,” he said, according to Reuters. “If the United States doesn’t stop this, we will stop this.”
Cavusoglu added, “The future of our relations depends on the step the United States will take next.”
The Turks’ pretext for the Afrin operation is as anti-American as it is anti-Kurdish.
On January 14, Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Baghdad said that the U.S. is training a Kurdish border patrol force in Syria that will eventually number some 30,000 troops. On January 17, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. has no timetable for removing its forces from Syria.
In response, Erdogan vowed to “drown” the border protection force “before it is even born.”
Erdogan then threatened the U.S.
“This is what we have to say to all our allies: Don’t get in between us and terrorist organizations, or we will not be responsible for the unwanted consequences.”
The Trump administration’s immediate response to Turkey’s aggression against its Kurdish allies was deferential, to say the least.
Tillerson disavowed Dillon’s statement, saying the plan to train a border fence was never approved. “That entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed. Some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all.”
A senior White House official told the New York Times that senior White House and National Security Council officials had never seriously considered the 30,000-man border force.
These statements are consistent with the U.S.’s general practice for the past 15 years, as Erdogan has gradually transformed Turkey from a Westernized democracy and a core member of NATO into an Islamist tyranny whose values and goals have brought it into alliance with U.S. foes Iran and Russia and into cahoots with Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and ISIS. The U.S. has met ever more extreme behavior from Ankara with a combination of denial and obsequiousness.
The U.S. didn’t penalize Turkey for its effective sponsorship of ISIS. For years, the Turks permitted ISIS to use their territory as its logistical base. ISIS’s foreign recruits entered Syria through Turkey. Its terrorists received medical care in Turkey. Turkey was the main purchaser of oil from ISI- controlled territory and there were repeated allegations that ISIS was receiving arms from Turkey.
And the U.S. turned a blind eye.
While many have expressed alarm over Turkey’s decision to purchase an S-400 surface to air missile system from Moscow, particularly given that Turkey has ordered 100 F-35s, all of which are endangered by the S-400, no U.S. official has taken any steps to expel Turkey from NATO.
The report of Trump’s conversation with Erdogan can be read in several ways. On the one hand, Trump urged Erdogan to “de-escalate” the operation in Afrin. Trump argued that the Turkish operation is harming the broader coalition campaign against ISIS in Syria.
Trump reportedly urged “Turkey to de-escalate, limit its military actions and avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced persons and refugees,” as well as to “exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.”
On the other hand, Trump was respectful of Turkey’s claim that the U.S.-supported YPG is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, which Turkey says is a terror group, and which the State Department has listed as a terror group.
The YPG has been the US’s most loyal and effective partner in the battle against ISIS in Syria. The US rejects Turkey’s allegation that the militia is a terror group. Still, Trump reportedly agreed that the PKK is a terror group and the White House’s statement regarding the two men’s conversation said the US seeks “regional stability and combating terrorism in all its forms,” including ISIS, al Qaeda, Iranian-sponsored terrorism and the PKK.
So what was Trump’s message?