When US President Donald Trump won the election in 2016, many foreign countries wondered what kind of US foreign policy might be crafted by the new US administration. One country had already begun to put its eggs in the Trump basket.
Ankara’s regime led by the AKP Party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan saw Trump’s isolationism as a means to an end. Turkey would seek a blank check from friends in Washington to begin a massive campaign of militarism, aggression and ethnic cleansing of opponents in Syria and across the region.
BY 2016 that had all changed. Turkey’s ruler was seeking absolute power, arresting opposition journalists and seeking to overturn election results that had enabled the opposition HDP Party to gain inroads in parliament and many municipalities. Trump would be the key to an unhinged Turkey, with no checks or balances on its behavior.
To get to Trump, Turkey operationalized its lobbyists in Washington and worked with key voices, from think tanks to right-wing friends, to get an invitation to DC. Erdogan arrived in May 2017. He felt so empowered by the White House that he sent presidential security to attack peaceful US protesters near the Turkish ambassador’s residence.
This was unprecedented in American history. Usually protests may be banned abroad, but protesters have a right to peacefully assemble in the US and protest foreign leaders. Now the message was that in the heart of Washington, Turkey had the run of things. Charges were dropped.
The attack on the protesters came as Turkey was purging hundreds of thousands of civil servants and others, accusing them of being “terrorists” and “coup plotters.” Ankara’s friends in Washington also spread stories about a US “deep state,” the kind they alleged also existed in Turkey, and claimed this “deep state” was seeking to undermine Trump.
Meanwhile, a referendum in Turkey also gave the presidency more power. Ankara sought immediate access to Trump, first via his original National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, and then direct access. US National Security Advisor John Bolton would later reveal how the US administration appeared to take orders from Erdogan’s regime, including to drop a case against Turkey’s large, state-owned Halkbank. These revelations alleged corruption and other elements at work, according to reports at the Washington Post, ABC and other news outlets.
In January 2018, Turkey recruited Syrian rebels to fight Kurds in Syria. It’s goal was to end the Syrian rebellion against Assad’s regime by co-opting Syrians to fight what Ankara claimed were “terrorists” in Syria. There were no “terrorists” in the Kurdish area of Afrin, but Turkey attacked the Syrian area, sent Syrian rebels to plunder it and then ethnically cleansed it of Kurds. Women were systematically removed from all government positions under Turkey’s occupation, and many women were kidnapped to secret prisons run by Turkey’s extremist allies in Syria.
THE DESTRUCTION of Afrin was only the first step. Turkey sensed the US administration was so pro-Turkey that Ankara could get the US to even abandon its partners in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces. Working with the US State Department, which wanted to humiliate the Pentagon and Central Command’s successful operations in eastern Syria, Turkey ordered Trump to withdraw US forces. Never in history had a US NATO ally threatened US troops and bombed its partner forces. But Ankara understood that this US administration would put Turkey first.
To sell its foreign policy in DC circles, Turkey understood that right-wing voices in the US tended to be anti-Iran as well as critics of Obama’s policies. Ankara sold its attack on Kurds in Syria as a way to upend “Obama era policies.” Meanwhile, Turkey was working with Tehran and Moscow, buying the S-400 air defense system from Russia, and seeking a deal with Iran on Syria that would isolate America and not include US partner forces in Syria negotiations.
In DC, the Turkish lobby claimed that Ankara was a bulwark against Russia and confronting Iran. To Trump, Turkey had a different message: It would save the US money by dealing with ISIS. In fact, Ankara’s regime was dealing with ISIS by letting ISIS fighters transit through Turkey to Idlib in Syria, where Turkish-backed extremists operated.
Turkey’s policy in Syria – getting the US to withdraw from part of northern Syria in October 2019 – ended up with Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime gaining ground. Yet Ankara sold the policy as upending Obama’s policies and confronting Iran. Instead, US soldiers were ordered to withdraw and Kurdish civilians were bombed by Turkey.
Ankara’s threats continued in 2020. It hosted Hamas twice with red carpets for the terror group’s leaders, as if they ran a foreign country; expelled 60 mayors from HDP cities; and handed journalists and opposition politicians decades-long prison sentences – all the while knowing that it had a blank check from Washington to crush dissent and threaten other countries. Turkey threatened Greece, claimed it would use Syrian refugees against Greece, harassed Greek ships, and then sent Syrians to fight in Libya, in violation of sanctions.
Then Turkey prodded Azerbaijan to attack Armenians in Nagorna-Karabakh. Under Turkey’s rampaging foreign policy at least 300,000 people have been ethnically cleansed in Syria in areas under Ankara’s occupation, and tens of thousands of Armenians have been ethnically cleansed in Nagorna-Karabakh. Kurds and Armenians have been murdered, beheaded and kidnapped. Ankara even fueled terror attacks in France by pushing incitement against Paris. It also accused Israel of being similar to Nazi Germany, and threatened to “liberate” Jerusalem from Israel’s control.
MUCH OF Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian and militarist behavior was done with American support or acquiescence over the last several years, a major departure from usual US foreign policy. A less chaotic administration, in which the president doesn’t take phone calls and orders from Ankara, might have worked with its own Pentagon, State Department and allies when Turkey demanded US forces withdraw. Instead the White House twice announced withdrawals from Syria without even telling key US allies. The UK, France and Israel were left out of the loop, raising concerns.
At the same time, a strategy was put in place by pro-Ankara political appointees at the US State Department. They wanted to sabotage what they saw as an Obama-era policy in Syria where the US was working with the SDF, mostly Kurdish forces, in eastern Syria.
How do you sabotage a successful counter-ISIS effort? First, they wanted Turkey to control policy in Syria. They also believed in Cold War-era thinking that Turkey was a “balance” to Russia, even though Ankara was increasingly allied with Moscow and Tehran against US policy in Syria. Third they wanted to empower extremists, because they believed US counter-terror strategy unfairly targeted Sunni fighters, and they wanted the US to target Shi’ite Iran.
Kurds, a peaceful minority subjected to abuses by the Assad regime and also by extremists, were a nuisance in their assessment. Geopolitics is about grand strategy; minority groups like Kurds who are “in the way” would be brushed aside, or genocided as they had been under the Saddam regime – a genocide the US neglected to condemn.
TO DESTROY the SDF, the US political appointees at the State Department, working with Ankara, had to sideline both the forces and Central Command. They told the SDF to work with Damascus and that they had no future in Syria. They told them the US role in Syria was temporary, transactional and tactical. The SDF, taking a cue from Washington, opened talks with Damascus. This gave the pro-Turkey members of the State Department a way to then allege that the SDF was working with Assad and Iran. Now they could set in motion Turkey’s invasion of Syria, which was their end goal, to get the US behind Turkey’s role in Idlib and get the US out of eastern Syria.
Historically, US policymakers don’t work to undermine America’s own policies, remove US leverage and destroy a successful campaign, like the one in Syria. But Turkey’s ability to get the White House to do its bidding led to a strange era between 2017 and 2019.
Once the SDF had been told the US would leave, the officials told the White House that the SDF was talking to Damascus and that it was an example of Obama-era Iran policy. Under this advice, the White House accepted Ankara’s logic. Ankara’s real goal, however, was to destroy the SDF, which it claimed was linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Turkey had crushed the PKK in 2015, but wanted to destroy Kurdish left-leaning groups in Syria as well. After the SDF stuck with the US in the wake of the invasion of Afrin, Kurds were promised by US officials that no more Afrins would happen.
Behind the scenes, however, a US political appointee brought Ankara maps of areas the US would give Turkey in eastern Syria. All Turkey had to do was demand the US withdraw. In the summer of 2019, Turkey’s threats grew and Central Command was told that it needed to get the SDF to assure Turkey there were no threats from Syria. The SDF complied and tore up military positions near the Turkish border.
What Central Command didn’t know was that in the State Department and White House, work with Ankara was ongoing to invade Syria. Central Command was duped along with the SDF into believing that if they just removed some bunkers, this would build confidence with Turkey. Erdogan called Trump in October 2019 and the US ordered Central Command to move its forces to make way for Turkey. 200,000 Kurds fled the Turkish attack.
This was mission accomplished for the pro-Turkey elements close to Trump in Washington. The SDF had been humiliated and would be forced into the hands of Moscow and Damascus, while Turkey would be given parts of Syria. Hundreds of thousands would be ethnically cleansed and peaceful cities with Kurds and Christians would be depopulated as in Afrin. It didn’t quite work, because the US Congress was outraged at how Ankara had threatened Washington and appeared to have gotten the White House to work against its own policymakers.
HAVING SABOTAGED US policy in Syria in 2019, most of 2020 was spent trying to restrain Turkey from more attacks on US partners when it became clear that its real goal was to make a deal with Russia, the Syrian regime and Iran to partition areas of former US control. The attacks and ethnic cleansing of Christians in Turkish-occupied areas of Syria didn’t sit well with those who believed the US should be supporting religious freedom in Syria. Attacks on women also didn’t sit well, and people wondered why the US appeared to be siding with an anti-American Ankara against pro-American SDF partners and friends in Syria.
The US political appointees dealing with US Syrian policy continued trying to provoke a showdown between Turkey and Russia in Idlib, hoping their theory that Turkey would obstruct Russia would play out. Instead Ankara and Moscow signed deals and the Syrian regime got more territory as Russia’s S-400 systems flowed to Turkey.
The last straw of the Ankara war effort through Washington was the decision to inflame the Caucasus. Turkey pushed Azerbaijan to war and encouraged more op-eds in DC about how the war on Armenians was about confronting Russia. However, the end result was like in Syria: Turkey ended up working with Russia and Iran in the Caucasus and Russian troops came in as peacekeepers.
Russia was empowered. Azerbaijan and Armenia’s leaders went to Moscow on January 11, 2021; they didn’t go to Washington. Russia gained influence. Turkey and Russia now work together in Syria, Libya and the Caucasus. The US role has been sidelined in each conflict, partly because Turkey got the US to outsource conflicts to Ankara.
ANKARA’S REGIME senses that its blank check is ending. It can’t use right-wing voices in the US to push the narrative that it is “against Iran” with the new US administration. Its only card now is reconciliation, which it is pushing with Greece, France, Israel and whoever will listen.
For the 350,000 people who were driven from their homes by Ankara’s invasion; the 200,000 or so purged and some imprisoned in Turkey; the journalists like Can Dundar who have been persecuted and driven into exile; the Kurdish women forced from office and replaced by extremists; the HDP mayors thrown out; and the politicians taken to prison on trumped-up “terror” charges, the last few years have been a nightmare.
For US officials in the Pentagon and State Department, the years where US Syria envoys would conduct policy that appeared to undermine Central Command – and where the White House wouldn’t even consult with or inform heads of the State Department and Pentagon about withdrawals from places like Syria – the era appears to be ending. US officials that bragged of hiding troop numbers from the White House – or told Ankara one thing, the SDF another and the White House something else – might stop.
Damage has been done to the SDF, key US partners who were sidelined for years by machinations in DC. In addition US policy, aiming to sabotage the Obama administration’s role in Syria, isolated the US from the Astana talks and made it entirely dependent on Turkey in Syria, partnering with extremists and authoritarians.
It remains to be seen if a new administration can figure out a way to have a consistent Syria policy.