It is no coincidence that President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw from Syria last month after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two men evidently reached some sort of understanding, even if the details remain murky. One thing is clear, however: an American withdrawal will cede more power to Turkey in Syria. Some people may shrug their shoulders in response, or even applaud another country taking a burden off of America's strained shoulders. But, if the Trump administration's responsibility in Syria is to protect America's security interests and be a moral actor on the world stage, then trusting Erdogan is sure to backfire.
When Trump's decision on Syria became public, it appeared that the withdrawal was imminent. Since then, however, the timeline appears to have been extended, and top officials in the Trump administration have put conditions on America's departure. Most recently, Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, said Monday during a trip to Israel that the U.S. will not leave Syria until the Islamic State is defeated and Washington receives guarantees that Turkey will not attack its Kurdish allies. Bolton has also said that the U.S. will not withdraw its forces from Syria until Iran withdraws its own soldiers, a demand that other administration officials have echoed in recent days.
Apparently Erdogan took great offense to Bolton's demand about the Syrian Kurds, who have fought and bled alongside American soldiers fighting ISIS. Speaking at the Justice and Development Party's parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday, Erdogan said that "Bolton's remarks in Israel are not acceptable," and called them a "serious mistake."
Turkey considers the People's Protection Units, also known as the YPG (along with other Kurdish groups), to be a terrorist organization. The YPG makes up the core of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main U.S. partner fighting ISIS on the ground. The Kurds control swaths of northern Syria near the Turkish border, a situation that Ankara views as a severe threat.
"YPG cannot represent the Kurds," Erdogan said in his speech. "Turkey cannot accept the U.S.' condition of ensuring the safety of YPG terrorists in Syria."
Following Erdogan's remarks, the Turkish president, in an apparent snub, did not meet with Bolton, who was in Turkey to have discussions with senior officials after leaving Israel. Bolton did meet with his Turkish counterpart, Presidential Adviser Ibrahim Kalın.
Erdogan's speech came one day after he penned an opinion piece in the New York Times in which he argued that, as the Times later reported, Turkey, with the second largest standing army in the NATO alliance, is "the only country with the power and commitment to replace United States forces in northeastern Syria, to fight terrorism and ensure stability for the Syrian people." Erdogan also wrote in the article that Turkey has "no argument with the Syrian Kurds," despite fears that he will order his troops to slaughter them once the U.S. leaves Syria.
Anyone who believes Erdogan's Turkey only targets terrorists in Syria and not Kurds in general probably also buys the ridiculous claims from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies that they only fight terrorists. The problem is that anyone who opposes these autocrats is labeled a terrorist, and some 500,000 Syrians have been slaughtered in the Assad regime's bid to combat its "terrorist" opponents.
Turkey does have legitimate security concerns regarding the Kurds, but large-scale military action will make the situation more chaotic. Moreover, the Kurds in Syria have been Washington's most effective partner in fighting ISIS, dying to help the U.S. defeat the caliphate. As I wrote last year: "How often can the United States abandon the Kurds and get away with it? Beyond the moral question of ditching the Kurds if Trump decides to leave Syria, Washington will lose significant influence in its ability to mediate between the Kurds and Turkey."
On Tuesday, Erdogan also declared his opposition to two other key American interests in the Syrian conflict: combatting Iran's malign expansion and supporting Israel's security. The Turkish president rejected the notions that Turkey will side with the U.S. to confront Iran in Syria and the broader Middle East, and that Turkey will ensure Israel's security is protected in Syria.
At what point will the U.S. realize that Turkey, despite being a NATO ally, has different interests? Erdogan is an Islamist, anti-Semitic dictator who is remaking Turkey for the worst, purging those who oppose his increasingly authoritarian rule. He purchased an S-400 air defense system from Russia, NATO's chief adversary, and supports terrorist groups like Hamas. He is a friend to the Muslim Brotherhood and has strong economic ties with Iran.
Turkey is an important country because of its size, geography, and economic and military power. But, under Erdogan, Turkey is no longer a friend of the United States. If the Trump administration is basing its withdrawal from Syria on Erdogan's promises to replace Washington's leadership role, which includes protecting the Kurds, it better come up with a new plan.