Trump pullout does not make Erdoğan a winner

The resignation last week of U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis leaves a tremendous mess, exposing not only escalating American disarray, but a dangerous new level of mismanagement among the leaders of the world’s super power.

The decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria came after a stunning move by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to push Trump and his men to a corner with a single question: “If you claim that Islamic State (ISIS) is nearly finished, why do you stay in Syria?”

Erdoğan followed up by making a dubious promise to take over the fight against ISIS. A U.S. official told NBC News: “Erdoğan said to the president, ‘In fact, as your friend, I give you my word in this’.”

Trump’s ‘you’re fired’ style has continued since he entered the White House, and the speed with which he has changed people in key positions is mind boggling. But the resignation of Mattis, known to be the key person blocking Trump’s impulsive foreign policy moves, carves immense fault lines through U.S. institutions not only in regards to Syria and the Middle East, but the entire world.

Trump’s shocking decision to order a full-scale pullout from Syria may come to be seen as the single biggest signal of the end of the ”American Era”, marking the beginning of global disorder.

Given the spectacular disarray in Washington, the element of irreversibility is clear.

Trump’s move leads to cards being reshuffled in the multi-sided Syrian conflict. True, some may see continuity with President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw troops from Iraq in 2011, but the U.S. presence in Syria was helping keep a delicate balance.

Who is the winner out of the decision? If, given the lingering threat of impeachment and the current chaos in the American capital, the move is irreversible, it opens the gates to the further geographical and political influence of Russia, which thus far has been able to hide its glee.

Moscow appreciates that Trump has acknowledged Russian efforts to make President Bashar Assad’s government a vital part of any solution, and its establishment of a permanent foothold in the eastern Mediterranean.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin can establish a fine balance between Tehran and Damascus, and become the protector of the Syrian Kurds and help them gain some form of self-rule, he will become the main architect of the new Syrian constitution.

Putin will definitely encourage the armed Kurdish groups who control large chunks of northeast Syria to come over to Assad. The Syrian Kurds have already signalled they are ready to negotiate a handover to Assad in a move they hope will squeeze Ankara.

What about Erdoğan? This aspect is interesting. If reports are true, what enraged Mattis was the escalation by Erdoğan and his ministers, especially Mattis’s counterpart, former top general Hulusi Akar, who kept threatening to bury the Kurds. It is important to note that in the crisis enveloping Washington, it is mostly the Pentagon that feels stabbed in the back by Trump and Turkey.

For a long time, a dominant flank in Washington favoured appeasing Erdoğan, refusing to realise how tough a gambler he is. They did not grasp the fact that Erdoğan is not a consensus-seeking negotiator, he perceives it as a form of arm wrestling in which one side wins.

As such, he has little understanding of the inner workings of the NATO alliance. But he has been successful, in that his government put a leash on the mighty U.S. administration and helped weaken it in a region where its presence vitally matters.

Now, Mattis and others know they have been misled – if not duped – by Ankara’s hidden intention to leave almost no room for the United States in the Syrian process.

Yet, there should no illusion that Erdoğan is the victor. His decision to delay a Turkish cross-border offensive speaks volumes of the tight corner he is now in.

First of all, the fierce anti-American rhetoric that Erdoğan was for months engaged in – his moves to purchase S-400 missiles from Russia and his threats against Syrian Kurdish forces YPG – was an instrument he hoped would pressure Washington to exempt Turkey from the U.S. embargo on Iran and free him to choose his path on regional foreign policy issues.

Trump’s sudden move, may lead Erdoğan to feel this instrument of pressure has been severely weakened, if not spent.

Secondly, the U.S. withdrawal spells the end of Erdoğan’s dream of a Syria with Assad gone and replaced by a Sunni administration dominated by Turkey.

It is no secret Erdoğan feels under siege in Ankara by nationalist, anti-American and pro-Russia circles that are pushing him to restart talks with his nemesis Assad. That day may not be far off.

If this happens, Erdoğan will have given up on a major ambition and may see his position weaken gradually.

Trump may have helped put the final nail in the coffin of neo-Ottoman expansionism, once forcefully promoted by Erdoğan and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

What we will witness is a deepening power struggle in Ankara between Erdoğan and isolationist nationalists. Given the immense turbulence and shifting alliances in the region and shifting alliances, this clash of wills could gain momentum and shatter the political ground.

Yavuz Baydar