Amid the shifting contours of President Donald Trump’s Syria policy, one constant has been the role of Turkey.
When Trump announced last month the withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. special operations forces from Syria, he did so after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump’s plans undermined the previously stated policy of senior U.S. officials.
Now it appears that Trump’s reversal is not quite so dramatic. On Monday, National Security Adviser John Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem that the withdrawal would be based on conditions — such as the protection of Kurdish allies and the defeat of the Islamic State. The process could take months or more than a year.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will begin negotiations with Erdogan and his government on protections for those Kurdish fighters. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told me last week, the U.S. intends to have a relationship with those Kurdish fighters after any withdrawal. And the Turks themselves have requested U.S. assistance in supplying and transporting their forces in Syria, as well as air strikes.
All of these developments count as good news. A hasty, unplanned withdrawal from Syria would have left a vacuum, emboldened Iran and shaken America’s Middle Eastern allies. There is a chance that this week’s diplomacy from Bolton, Pompeo and Dunford will mitigate that.
That said, there is also a catch. The new Syria policy will be binding the U.S. much closer to an unreliable ally — namely, Turkey. It’s important to remember that Erdogan’s government still detains Serkan Golge, an American physicist, along with two Turkish nationals who worked for U.S. consulates there.
Last year it appeared certain that Russia would be delivering its own S-400 air defense system to Turkey. Now it appears less so, in part because the Pentagon announced last month the sale of patriot missiles to Turkey. U.S. officials tell me this is part of a plan to get Erdogan to cancel the Russian sale. Nonetheless, Turkey’s willingness to pursue an arms deal with NATO’s primary adversary says a lot about how Erdogan views the alliance.
There is also an open question about whether the Turks are in any kind of position to help rebuild the villages destroyed by Islamic State. It was always uncertain whether Kurdish forces would be trusted by the local population after the defeat of Islamic State. Is there any reason to think Syrian Arabs would trust the Turks to be neutral arbiters?
Finally, there is the question of Erdogan’s treatment of Turkey’s own Kurdish minority. It’s vital the U.S. use its diplomatic leverage with Turkey to protect Syrian Kurdish populations. But the U.S. should not give Erdogan a green light to continue his purge of Turkey’s Kurds, a cynical campaign that reverses some of the openings he made in the beginning of his presidency.
A counterpoint to all of these objections comes from Bolton’s former chief of staff, Fred Fleitz. "There are a lot of bad options here," he told me, and the president is choosing the least bad one. "When we leave, no one is going to be happy."
That is undoubtedly true. At the same time, Trump should approach the Syrian withdrawal with his eyes wide open. He may believe the U.S. can use its leverage with a NATO ally to make the best of the disaster in Syria. But in so doing, he is giving a bad friend more leverage over broader U.S. policy in the region.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
© Copyright 2018 Bloomberg L.P. All Rights Reserved.