Trump Team’s Brief Honeymoon with Turkey’s Erdogan Is over
On Feb. 19, the day President Donald Trump asked for Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn’s resignation as National Security Adviser, a high-ranking Turkish delegation was visiting Washington. It was headed by Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Umit Yalcin, together with directors of the ministry’s US, Iraq and Syria departments, military chiefs and members of the MIT national spy agency. They were winding up two days of talks with an American team consisting of Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon, Michael Flynn and CENTCOM commander Gen. Joseph L. Votel.
The talks had stalled when Turkish demands for the US to drop its plans to use the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the offensive for liberating Raqqa from ISIS, labeling them terrorists, were greeted with shrugs from the American officials.
There were two reasons for this:
1. Trump’s point man for setting up ties with Ankara was Michael Flynn and he was too preoccupied with attempts to save himself from being axed to deal with a topic that was no more than a side issue for Washington.
2. Flynn’s exit brought to an end the Trump administration’s short-lived willingness to go along with the Turkish demand to withhold support from Syrian Kurds aspirations for statehood – or at least semi-autonomy – in northern Syria. The pro-Ankara policy championed by the former national security adviser was opposed by most members of the National Security Council and the Pentagon. But so long as he was in the saddle, they avoided clashing with him on this, mainly because they were uncertain about the content of the secret Turkish deals with Russia for a role in Syria, Turkey’s commitments as part of those deals and how far Flynn was involved in this elaborate web of understandings for cooperation in Syria.
According to the information reaching Washington, Russian officials in Moscow and officers on the ground complain constantly that the Turks were not abiding by their commitments.
Flynn’s resignation presented the opponents of his pro-Turkish policy within the administration with the opportunity to get it reversed. Without putting this into words, the shrugs by the US officials in the face of the Turkish visitors’ demands signaled that the short-lived honeymoon between Donald Trump and Tayyip Erdogan was over
The repercussions were immediate: Turkey felt free to go back to bashing the Syrian Kurdish PKK and YPG, while the Trump team got started on final preparations for an assault on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital in Syria, without having to take into account a role for the Turkish army.
This development, the outcome of Flynn’s departure, was also a relief for US generals planning the Raqqa operation, led by Gen. Votel. After watching the Turkish army struggling for nearly three months to capture the northern town of Al Bab from ISIS, they awarded it middling-to-low marks for operational performance. The Islamists, though inferior in numbers and no air support, were able to repulse successive Turkish assaults. Turkish operational planning was rated below par and the lack of coordination between the field commands and headquarters noted. Ankara was also unable to raise a rebel force for the Al-Bab operation as was promised.
US generals, therefore, concluded that the exclusion of the Turkish army from the Raqqa operation was no real loss.
They are now waiting to see where the new National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster stands in relation to policy on Syria and the Raqqa operation, in particular. (See a separate article on the Pentagon’s coming review of US policy due to come out next week.)
In Moscow, the Turks are not faring much better than they did in Washington. Heeding the complaints of their field commanders in Syria, the Russians, like the Americans, appear to repose more trust in the Kurds than in their already shaky understandings with the Turks. Rather than dumping the Kurds, as Ankara demands, Moscow has reached out to this minority with concessions, such as permission to open a Kurdish office in Moscow and incorporating their demands for autonomy into Russian proposals for a Syrian constitution to be written into a future political settlement.