Erdogan Plays Washington Like a Fiddle

As U.S. policymakers worry about their special relationship with Ankara, Turkey’s president knows it's already dead.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prepares to speak at the Brookings Institution, March 31, 2016 in Washington, DC.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prepares to speak at the Brookings Institution, March 31, 2016 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Everything in Washington is always “red alert,” with foreign-policy analysts, policymakers, and journalists permanently anxious about some far-reaching disaster about to befall the United States. And so it was for the last few weeks when so many seemed convinced that Turkey would invade northeast Syria. The Trump administration, the Washington Post reported, was undertaking “last-ditch” efforts to stave off what would surely be disaster. News reports and analysts referenced “indicators” that the mighty Turkish Armed Forces were about to pour across Syria’s border. Then nothing happened.

It may very well be that skillful U.S. diplomacy averted Turkey’s invasion, evidence for which is an agreement on northeastern Syria that Turkish and American officials initialed on Aug. 7. Yet there’s a reason officials in Ankara triumphantly claim the agreement represents Washington’s acquiescence to their position. It is odd that so few considered the possibility that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threats to invade were a bluff, a negotiating tactic deployed in bad faith. The Turkish president understands Washington well. He knew he would be able to get folks inside the Beltway all spun up by threatening to kill off the U.S.-Turkey strategic partnership—the idea, which has guided bilateral policy for decades, that the countries share broad foreign-policy goals and a vision for achieving them. Erdogan knows that the partnership is already dead and is happy to take advantage of any Americans who don’t.

To be sure, it wasn’t entirely fanciful to believe that the Turks might invade Syria. Erdogan has threatened to order the Turkish military into northeastern Syria eight times since January 2018, the last three warnings coming between late July and early August of this year. And Erdogan is generally a man of his word. In late summer 2016, the Turks launched Operation Euphrates Shield across the Syrian border, and in early 2018, the Turkish military—along with the Free Syrian Army—occupied Afrin. Most important, the Turks have a motive. Turkish leaders, average Turks, and almost every Western analyst recognize that the Syrian Kurdish fighting force known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—the principle target of a would-be Turkish incursion—is directly connected to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist group that has been waging war on Turkey for the better part of four decades.

Still, any objective analysis would have revealed many compelling reasons to believe that the Turks’ threats were a bluff designed to coerce concessions from Washington. First, the invasion wasn’t necessary. The territory that the Kurds call Rojava (Western Kurdistan) is already split. Turkey controls territory from Jarabulus in the east to the Turkish border in the west. As long as the Turks remain, and there is no indication they are planning to leave, the Kurds will not be able to unify the land they covet for a state.

Second, for all the bluster from Erdogan, the Turks have been mostly cautious in Syria. One can certainly understand Turkish anger and fear concerning cross-border terrorism, but a large Turkish military operation in Syria would likely leave Turkey more vulnerable to terrorist attacks given the resulting asymmetric warfare Kurds would undertake in response. The Turks need look no further than Israel’s unhappy experience in Lebanon to understand the risks of an intervention. What Erdogan has threatened—deploying forces east of the Euphrates River—is different and harder to achieve than the more limited interventions that the Turks (with pro-Turkish Syrian militias in the lead) have undertaken in the recent past. Turkey certainly has a sophisticated, highly capable military, but it risks getting stuck in Syria in a prolonged conflict with the YPG. The Turkish armed forces have yet to prevail against the PKK within Turkey, so why would Turkish military planners believe they could deliver a deathblow to the YPG in Syria? They likely don’t, which is part of the reason the Turks didn’t invade and probably never intended to.

Finally, the U.S. presence in northeastern Syria benefits the Turks—it just prefers not to act that way. It makes it easier for Erdogan to bluster (and score domestic political points) without ever having to order a soldier into battle. If the modest number of U.S. forces were not there, Erdogan would likely be less bellicose, because the realities of Syria are constraining Turkey. The U.S. presence in Syria is a win for Erdogan. He gets to beat up Washington, and he doesn’t have to actually make good on his repeated promises to invade, while looking strong.

The whole episode is revealing of the rather odd juncture at which the U.S. foreign-policy community finds itself concerning Turkey. Although there is ample evidence that Turkey is not and does not want to be a strategic partner of the United States, some analysts and policymakers desperately want to believe otherwise. Turkey is alleged to be of vast importance in the great power competition with China and Russia that is now upon the United States and in the confrontation with Iran. This is the same country that has helped Iran evade sanctions, has purchased a Russian air defense system designed to shoot down U.S. aircraft, and has gone mum on the plight of Chinese Muslims herded into detention camps.

In their attempts to explain away Turkish efforts to complicate or undermine U.S. policy, analysts and policymakers tend to blame the United States for the deterioration in bilateral ties, often suggesting that whatever Turkish leaders are doing is just domestic politics and can be ignored. This inevitably leads to policy prescriptions that border on the absurd. It was appropriate that the United States canceled Turkey’s participation in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program over Ankara’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system, but instead of penalizing Turkey as required by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, some policymakers floated the idea of offering Ankara a free trade agreement if the Turkish military did not turn on the S-400.

Keep in mind that the recent Turkish threats to invade Syria came at around the same time that the debate about the sanctions act was heating up. Erdogan’s thunder quickly changed the conversation. In the ensuing tizzy, U.S. policymakers looked for ways to prevent the Turks from doing something that they likely were not going to anyway. That came in the form of a three-point agreement that calls for the United States “to address Turkey’s security concerns,” stand up a joint operations center in Turkey’s southeast, and establish a safe zone in northern Syria. The likely effect of this agreement will be to draw the United States further into Syria and in the process render Washington responsible for Turkey’s security. These are commitments that the Turks have been seeking for some time.

It was an extraordinary achievement for Erdogan. The Turkish leader likely doesn’t play poker, but he probably should.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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