On Monday, John Bolton declared that the Trump administration’s plan to pull U.S. forces out of Syria is conditioned on protecting the Kurdish warriors who bore the brunt of our fight to defeat ISIS. This condition seemed to preclude a complete withdrawal in the foreseeable future. As I explained:
I don’t see how a complete U.S. withdrawal can be accomplished without putting the Kurds in serious jeopardy at the hands of Turkey. Turkey regards the Kurdish fighters we’re allied with as separatists and terrorists. Thus, the Turks cannot reasonably be expected to forebear from attacking the Kurdish forces if the U.S. is out of the picture.
Hoping somehow to work around this difficulty, Bolton traveled to Turkey this week for talks. But Turkey’s president Erdogan refused to meet with him.
Instead, Erdogan went on television and chastised America’s national security adviser. He said that Bolton made “a serious mistake” in conditioning U.S. withdrawal from Syria on protecting the Kurds. He then added this threat:
Very soon, we will take action to neutralize terrorist organizations in Syria.
Erdogan regards our Kurdish allies in Syria as terrorists.
Was Bolton speaking for the administration when he said protection of our Kurdish allies is a precondition for withdrawal Syria? I hope so.
It would be dishonorable to abandon those who fought alongside (and often ahead) of our troops in the war against ISIS, leaving them vulnerable to a fearsome attack by the Turks. Such disgraceful conduct might well have serious adverse consequences the next time we try to enlist a regional force to fight terrorists.
If Bolton spoke out of turn on such an important matter, I don’t see how Trump can retain his services. If he spoke for the administration, Trump needs to make it clear to Erdogan that we will defend the Kurds against any attack by Turkey and will not withdraw from Syria as long as the threat of attack looms. Erdogan is most unlikely to attack the Kurds as long as we’re present, and the cost of maintaining 2,000 troops in Syria isn’t high.
Turkey has no right to wage a war of aggression against a U.S. ally in Syria. And America cannot afford to be seen knuckling under to threats by a second rate power — one that purports, itself, to be a U.S. ally.
Erdogan is preparing for important local elections in two months. Tough talk about the Kurds can only help him. Humiliating the American national security adviser helps him too.
But beyond these short-term considerations, Erdogan has designs in Syria. They include not just crushing the Kurds, but also becoming a major player in the fight to fill that country’s power vacuum.
The U.S. can reasonably regard Turkey as among the least malignant potential players in Syria. That’s a low bar, of course, considering that the other players include Iran, Russia, Assad, and ISIS (or its successors and rival jihadists).
Couple that with Trump’s desire to sell arms to Turkey and one can understand the president’s desire to accommodate Erdogan. The Turkish strong man obviously understands it, or he wouldn’t have treated Bolton as he did.
On the other side of the ledger is America’s honor, its level of trustworthiness and respect in the world, its ability to enlist allies in future fights against terrorism, and its ability to make sure ISIS is well and truly crushed in Syria.
We’ll see how Trump weighs these competing values and considerations.