We should extinguish fires, not light more in Syria

We should extinguish fires, not light more in Syria

We should extinguish fires, not light more in Syria
In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, the town of Tel Abyad can be seen inside Syria, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. (AP)

When Donald Trump withdrew US troops from the Syrian-Turkish border, he was making good on a promise, but the consequences are reverberating well beyond Syria. In the past week more than 100,000 Kurdish civilians, having already endured civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, have fled Turkish military action in northeast Syria.

The Turks have always been at odds with the YPG, Western allies who led the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the fight against Daesh, because Ankara views them as the Syrian branch of the outlawed PKK, and therefore terrorists. Turkey’s relationship with its Kurdish minority is uneasy, and every Turkish government has seen the PKK and its allies as a threat to the country’s territorial integrity. The Kurds also guard thousands of Daesh prisoners and their families; the world is right to be concerned about what happens to them when the YPG’s attention is diverted.

The US withdrawal not only risks a resurgence of Daesh, it also creates a vacuum that Russia, Iran and the Assad regime are eager to fill.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK party were politically weakened in recent regional elections. Turks are proud and fiercely patriotic people. In the short term the creation of an outside enemy will help Erdogan. All parties in parliament, except the opposition HDP, have agreed to a prolonged deployment of Turkish troops; some opposition politicians are of the opinion that domestic disagreements are secondary in the face of external threats. That popularity will hold as long as Erdogan can show results, and the economy can withstand the strains of war and potential sanctions.

Geographically Turkey is the gateway between east and west in a troubled neighborhood. Former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu created a doctrine that aspired to have good relations with all neighbors. That worked until the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, when Turkey opposed the Assad regime. Erdogan was concerned about the Western alliance with the YPG, who like him are against Assad and Daesh.

Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952, and until recently was keen to join the EU. Europe has cooled on that ambition amid worries about democracy, civil rights, free speech and the treatment of journalists. The rift widened when AKP functionaries wanted to hold rallies across Europe before Turkish parliamentary elections, and journalists who were dual nationals with EU countries were jailed for voicing dissenting opinions.

The US withdrawal not only risks a resurgence of Daesh, it also creates a vacuum that Russia, Iran and the Assad regime are eager to fill.

Cornelia Meyer

Nevertheless, the EU needs Turkey, and not just as an important trading partner; Erdogan sealed his border to prevent Syrian refugees from fleeing to Europe, in return for a promised 6 billion euros, of which it has not received all. As a result, Turkey now houses 3.5 million Syrian refugees — some of whom he wants to send to his proposed ”safe zone” in northeast Syria, although placing ethnic Arab Syrians in Kurdish territory would create more problems than it solved. Erdogan has threatened to re-open Turkey’s borders if Europeans dare to call it an “invasion.” This rang alarm bells in Western Europe, which has no solution to the streams of refugees from Africa and conflicts of the Middle East.

Then there is NATO. While some question the rationale of Turkish membership, Turkey is nevertheless the crucial easternmost partner. Russia’s President Putin has worked hard to create a rift between NATO and Turkey. He was partially successful, selling Ankara his S-400 air defense system, thus catapulting Turkey out of the US F-35 fighter-jet program.

In Syria, Erdogan is on the opposite side from Iran and Russia, who both support Assad. However, the three countries have held a series of meetings to discuss the future of Syria — most recently in Ankara in September. Unrealistic as it may be, Erdogan even hoped that the latest trilateral meeting could breathe new life in the Astana peace process, which may well shape the future of Syria.

Aside from having caused senseless human suffering, the US withdrawal from Syria has brought to the fore the uneasy relationship between Turkey and its Western neighbors and allies.

NATO needs its eastern borders reliably covered. The EU is not equipped in any way, shape or form to deal with 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Turkey would be well advised to understand that while Europeans may displease him with their insistence on democratic values, he still needs them, because they have been his most important trading partners and allies.

In the meantime, it is understandable that Turkey needs to get along with its neighbors to mitigate being in such a volatile region; Davutoglu was on to something at the beginning of this decade.

Trump’s withdrawal of troops made an already volatile region even more volatile. We should all be trying to extinguish fires, not light them — an imperative that applies not just to Turkey, but to the EU, to NATO, and to everyone with a stake in regional stability.

  • Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources


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