| January 08, 2019 03:48 PM
When dealing with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it’s never a good idea to give Erdogan a misleading impression of your intent. To do so unleashes the Turkish leader’s worse impulses: emotional instability and unpredictable behavior.
I note this in the context of President Trump’s newly delayed withdrawal of military forces from Syria. Trump originally pledged to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria following a phone call with Erdogan a few weeks ago. But over the past few days, national security adviser John Bolton has told the Turkish government that the U.S. will only withdraw once Turkey assures it won’t annihilate America’s Kurdish allies in northern Syria.
This, predictably, has enraged Erdogan.
The Turkish leader has described Bolton’s words as “unacceptable” and evidence of “serious delusion.”
But no one should be shocked. After all, Erdogan’s absolute interest in Syria is just that which the U.S. is now demanding he avoid: smashing the Kurds. The simple reality is that the Turkish leader was never going to follow through on his pledge to Trump to finish off the Islamic State in Syria in return for the U.S. military’s withdrawal. It was neither in his strategic focus nor his military capability to do so.
That leaves us here — in a more realistic situation of U.S. interests ( which demanded Trump’s about-face) and a more honest statement of Erdogan’s interests (which are focused on the Kurds).
What happens next? Erdogan will likely rant and rave but ultimately come to some kind of deal over the post-U.S. situation of the Kurds. Even Erdogan is not crazy enough to go to war with the U.S. over this issue ( hopefully). The more realistic appraisal of U.S. interests in Syria also suggests efforts by Bolton and others to persuade President Trump to retain some kind of U.S. ground presence in that nation, even if not a military presence.
That said, Russia is the biggest victor here. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s constant argument to Erdogan has been that he must deal with Moscow over Washington. And while that argument is rarely compelling from a Turkish interest-in-Syria standpoint, U.S. tensions will nudge Erdogan further to the Kremlin corner.