Turkey’s action reflects ” a continuation of the tensions that have been simmering between the U.S. and Turkey for some time,” former ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman tells me. “There have been two strands to those tensions, one has been over the growing authoritarianism of Erdogan’s highly personalized regime and, second, a strategic misreading of one another’s interests and policies in Syria since March 2011.” Edelman explains that the attack reflects “Erdogan’s judgment that a) the U.S. was not going to simply abandon the Kurds and leave Syria after Raqqa; b) a sense of the nation under siege serves his domestic political purposes by allowing him to extend the post-coup state of emergency essentially ad infinitum; and c) whipping up anti-Americanism is always good politics.” Unfortunately, the U.S. response to date has been less than robust. “In that sense, the relatively timid calls by State and Defense for ‘restraint’ by the Turks allow him to swagger and also almost certainly will convince him and his entourage (not that they matter very much) that the U.S. is self-deterred from playing hardball with Turkey because ‘it is too big to fail.’ ”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis seemed to step up the rhetoric on Tuesday. (“The violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area of Syria,” he said. “It distracts from the international efforts to ensure the defeat of ISIS, and this could be exploited by ISIS and al-Qaida, obviously, that we’re not staying focused on them right now.”) That may be too little, too late.
Unfortunately, Trump’s obvious lack of will in confronting Turkey’s internal repression and the Trump administration’s relative meekness in Syria (although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested last week a U.S. presence in Syria would be needed) have plainly enabled Russia to become the dominant power — along with Iran — in the area. This week, Tillerson called out Russia for “responsibility” for a suspected chemical attack in Syria. He also expressed “concern” about Turkey’s offensive but did not demand an end to the incursion. Give him credit, but he is scrambling to keep up with events and to make up for the absence of a coherent strategy since Trump took office.
Belatedly, Tillerson has recognized (as critics of both Trump and President arack Obama have long argued) that we do have a national interest in Syria, cannot tolerate the indefinite presence of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and need to recognize that if we mean to check Iranian aggression, we will need to maintain a presence in Syria. (“U.S. disengagement from Syria would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria,” he said in a speech at Stanford University last week. “As we have seen from Iran’s proxy wars and public announcements, Iran seeks dominance in the Middle East and the destruction of our ally, Israel. As a destabilized nation and one bordering Israel, Syria presents an opportunity that Iran is all too eager to exploit.”)
If a coherent shift in policy accompanies that, we may see Turkey’s, Russia’s and Iran’s calculations change. For now, however, without a determination to assert U.S. values and interests, the power vacuum will be filled by Russia and its junior partners in Turkey and Iran. So long as Assad remains, the motivation for the Islamic State to fight remains. “Tillerson’s speech is certainly a positive, small step forward in that it seems to recognize that if the U.S. wants to have a say in Syria’s future it has to maintain a presence, support proxies who hold some territory, and not chase after Russia in the hope of find an evanescent ‘diplomatic solution’ brokered by Moscow,” Edelman says. “Whether a strategy and policy actually emerges out of this remains to be seen.”
We hope we are seeing an end to the distressing U.S. retrenchment in the area. Recent events should convince (and perhaps have convinced) the administration that U.S. reticence and deference to Russia — as Trump has often urged — will not lead to more “winning” for the United States.