This occurred in the context of the U.S. administration being distracted by other issues, either the murder of Jamal Khashoggi or the midterm elections and their aftermath. Ankara appears laser-focused on Syria, perhaps for its own populist reasons, while Washington is distracted. Turkish officials say eastern Syria and the YPG top the agenda. Meanwhile, Turkey is also working with Iran and Russia to discuss a constitution committee for Syria—while not including the United States. Jeffrey openly opposed the Turkey-Iran-Russia track and called on the trio of countries should “pull the plug” on their Astana process. Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was nonplussed and said that the U.S. views were “very unfortunate.” Trump has now pulled the plug on U.S. involvement.
Up until Trump’s decision, Jeffrey was still working to thread the needle on Turkey’s criticism of Washington. He traveled to Turkey in early December under this cloud where he discussed cooperation with Turkey and “issues facing the Syrian diaspora and the necessity for a Syrian-led and -owned political process under U.N. Security Council resolution 2254,” the State Department said. Four days later, Erdogan warned that Turkey would launch an operation in eastern Syria and return it to its “true owners.” Trump had to call Erdogan to prevent the operation from happening. It raised tensions with the U.S.-led coalition as well.
Turkey postponed its operation, but it continues to push on other fronts. Ankara met with Iran and Russia, two countries that oppose the U.S. presence in Syria, to discuss a Syrian constitution. Washington keeps saying that the Geneva track is the only way forward, but none of the other major players in Syria are siding with the United States on this track. Instead, they are siding with each other. These three countries increasingly have more in common in opposing the U.S. role in the Middle East. This is clear with the warming relations between Turkey and Russia, which has included an offer from Ankara to purchase the S-400 missile system and work on a gas pipeline. Turkish and Iranian officials show this warmth publicly. They did so at the recent Doha Forum, and Turkey got an exemption from Iran sanctions. Rouhani came to Ankara on December 20th and press in Iran sometimes refers to Turkey as “brothers.”
America’s partners, the Syrian Kurds and other members of the SDF, feel increasingly isolated. The United States had set up observation posts along the Syrian border with Turkey and suggested manning them with the Syrian Kurdish Peshmerga who live in Iraq. Theoretically, these Peshmerga would serve as a kind of buffer between the YPG and Turkey. Still, Turkey’s media continues to accuse the United States of working with “terrorists.” The SDF have reached out to France, Russia and the Syrian regime in the aftermath of Trump’s decision.
Washington had plans to stabilize eastern Syria. It also wanted to leverage its presence to push Iran out of Syria. Unfortunately, the Turkish partner the United States thought would oppose the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies is the partner that most opposes the U.S. role in eastern Syria. Turkey’s assertion that ISIS is not a threat and its desire to invade the area must be taken seriously.
Turkey’s two other major military operations in Syria, Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch in Afrin, were designed to frustrate and expel the YPG. Turkey might not have troops in northern Syria today if it were not for that issue. Additionally, Turkey has been trying to get the Syrian rebels to focus on fighting the YPG by describing the rebel groups, which mostly consist of Sunni-Arabs, as the “true owners” and promising that refugees will be able to return to eastern Syria after a successful operation. This is Turkey’s way of distracting the Syrian opposition from its war with Assad and refocusing its attention on the United States and its partners. Erdogan promised to hand over Afrin to its “true owners” in January 2018. He made a similar promise about Manbij in March. This is now the rhetoric for eastern Syria.
It should be noted that Turkey, Iran and Russia have outmaneuvered the United States on the issue of Syria’s constitutional committee. Washington was excluded from essential meetings, such as the one in Geneva on December 19. The trio has expressed optimism about moving forward. That means America’s local Syrian partners have been frozen out of discussions about the future of eastern Syria. Jeffrey has indicated that the SDF and other parties in eastern Syria should play a role in the fabric of the future Syrian state; but if the United States and its partners are not at the same table with Russia, Turkey, or Iran when discussing the future of Syria, then how can America’s Syrian partners be a part of the process? Also problematic is a pending withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. This drawdown plan will undermine confidence in U.S. policy, and it will harm U.S. partners in eastern Syria who helped America defeat ISIS. This illustrates how the U.S. State Department has failed to pursue a consistent and confident strategy in concert with the Pentagon and White House. Thus, the window of opportunity to address the crisis in Syria is closing amid a barrage of contradictory U.S. statements.
Trump administration officials have said that they see a chance for diplomacy amid the winding down of the war with ISIS. But for the United States to make diplomacy work, it has to assert its goals in Syria. Trying to balance too many agendas has led to one crisis after another.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is writing a book on the Middle East after ISIS. Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman .