Meanwhile, Turkey has plowed ahead with its offensive in Syria. U.S. troops and veterans are reeling over the sense that they abandoned the Kurds, a close ally in the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey considers the Kurdish fighters to be terrorists.
Now, backed into a corner as Washington weighs what to do next, Trump will have to choose between a handful of weak options — none of which observers expect would make an immediate impact on the ground.
“We are used to thinking about the U.S. as a superpower that’s able to step into problems and leverage responses favorable to its interests and its ideals pretty handily,” said Howard Eissenstat, a professor at St. Lawrence University and senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy.
But in this case, he said, “we’ve so sabotaged ourselves that we’re not able to do it.”
Washington now seems more poised to try to mitigate the aftermath of the Turkish offensive than to reel it back in. Here are some of the tools the United States has left on the table — none of which offer Washington much leverage.
Sanctions and cease-fire requests
In recent days, Trump spoke by phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and called for a cease-fire in northeastern Syria. But Ankara moved ahead with its operations, and by Tuesday, the United States confirmed it had left a strategic base in Manbij. Soon after, video footage showed a Russian journalist and troops touring the abandoned U.S. base.
Trump also announced sanctions on some Turkish leaders, froze negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey and imposed a steep tariff on Turkish steel, reiterating his threats to “destroy” the Turkish economy. But Erdogan brushed aside the impact of those sanctions, saying the offensive against the Kurds, whom Turkey sees as terrorists, is the priority.
On Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the sanctions “will not affect our resolve.”
Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were scheduled to fly to Turkey on Wednesday, even as Erdogan told Sky News he would not meet with their delegation and would only be willing to meet directly with Trump. Erdogan later appeared to temper those statements, and Pompeo told Fox Business that they “have every expectation that we will meet with President Erdogan.”
Blocking arms sales
In the days after Turkey’s incursion into Syria, a number of European countries announced they would halt arms sales to Turkey. Condemning the Turkish offensive, Germany and France on Saturday each announced plans to stop selling arms that could be used in Syria. Britain followed Tuesday, with Defense Minister Dominic Raab calling Turkey’s decision to go ahead with its controversial military operation “reckless.”
“This is not the action we expected from an ally,” Raab said. “It is counterproductive and plays straight into the hands of Russia, and indeed the Assad regime.” During the past five years, Britain has sent Turkey about $1.41 billion in arms exports, the Guardian reported.
Melissa Dalton, director of the Cooperative Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said sanctions and blocking arms sales “may shape Turkey’s behavior to extract minor concessions but I fear it will not strategically impact the course of conflict.”
The United States should focus on pressuring European allies to transfer and repatriate suspected members of the Islamic State, she said, as fears mount that high-profile detainees could escape amid the chaos of the Turkish offensive.
Investigation into possible war crimes
Dozens of people have been killed since the Turkish offensive began last week, and human rights advocates continue to raise concerns that civilians will be caught in the crossfire. In the past week, some 150,000 civilians have fled the region to avoid ongoing clashes. Erdogan has insisted the operation will ultimately allow Turkey to set up a “safe zone” for Syrian refugees, whom he then plans to move from Turkey to Syria.
On Tuesday, Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations human rights office, said Turkey could be held responsible for “violations by their affiliated groups as long as Turkey exercises effective control of these groups or the operations in the course of which those violations occurred.”
The remarks followed reports that forces aligned with Turkey executed Kurdish captives and Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf in the days since Turkey launched its offensive in Syria.
“We urge Turkish authorities immediately to launch an impartial, transparent and independent investigation and to apprehend those responsible, some of whom should be easily identifiable from the video footage they themselves shared on social media,” Colville said.
Dalton said while the United States could push for investigations, it will be increasingly difficult for investigators to gain access to the areas where these incidents are allegedly taking place. Now, after the Kurds cut a deal with the Syrian regime to help counter the Turkish incursion, people living in the area will face the risk of repercussions from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“We’ve seen how the Assad regime treats people who have worked with international actors on alternative government projects,” Dalton said. “They are imprisoned, they are tortured, they are disappeared.”
She added the U.S. choice to withdraw from the region “has significantly diminished its ability to shape outcomes in Syria and its credibility as an ally and a partner.”
For years, Turkey has asked that the United States hand Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, a permanent U.S. resident, over to Turkey amid claims he helped orchestrate a 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan.
On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that former U.S. officials said Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, previously urged Trump to assent to the request and extradite Gulen from the United States. In December, the White House said Trump told Erdogan that the White House would “look” at Turkey’s request for extradition.
But Eissenstat said it’s very unlikely that the United States would try to use Gulen as any kind of bartering chip with Turkey to resolve the standoff over Syria.
“It was clearly in our interest to extradite Gulen for years and had there been a convenient legal way to do so, the U.S. would have done so, but it’s got to get through the Justice Department and it’s got to get through the courts,” Eissenstat said.