Believe it or not, the war in Syria might get worse. Right now, Turkish troops are moving on a Syrian city held by pro-U.S. forces and their U.S. military advisers, and as they advance the odds of a military conflict between the U.S. and Turkey, NATO allies, are increasing.
The city is called Manbij, a former Islamic State stronghold recently liberated by the YPG, a Kurdish paramilitary group operating in Syria with U.S. backing, including air support. Though we might see our victory and occupation as a good thing, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan associates the YPG with a Kurdish group in Turkey (the PKK) that the U.S., the E.U., and Turkey have all labeled a terrorist organization. The PKK, in efforts to achieve Kurdish independence in Turkey, has fought a decades-long insurgency there, including several horrific attacks against government targets. Erdogan has in response cracked down on his minority Kurdish population, often brutally, and has never approved of the U.S.-YPG alliance.
In short, Erdogan sees the Kurds in Manbij as terrorists on his border. He’s already attacked our allies: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has reported the Turkish military has killed more than two dozen civilians. A couple weeks ago Erdogan promised to “clean” Manbij of Kurds.
But those Kurds are the most effective ally we have in our fight against the Islamic State. They’ve died fighting with us. On the other hand, Turkey is also our ally, and a NATO ally at that. But if Trump can’t get Erdogan to stand down and Turkish soldiers advance on U.S.-YPG positions in Manbij, there’s a good likelihood that two NATO allies will exchange fire.
Such a conflict has never happened before, and it is not a good thing. The fact that Syria is the context, where everyone (including but not limited to Syria, the United States, Russia, Israel, al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran) seems to be fighting and helping everyone all the time, makes everything worse.
Trump might face one of the most consequential foreign policy decisions of his presidency. What’s he going to do? Trump has, unsurprisingly, about a thousand conflicts of interest with Turkey, including development partnerships and receiving months of borderline treasonous policy advice from American hero and registered Turkish foreign agent Michael Flynn.
Trump has also routinely praised and been praised by Erdogan, a ruthless President who has thrown thousands of Turkish citizens in jail, and according to Human Rights Watch hundreds of professors and journalists.
So it’s not looking good, but Trump does have an opportunity here to take an aggressive and selfless (!) stand for U.S. interests. That said, it seems with each passing month that the United States is getting lonelier and lonelier.
The World According to Trump
Last week the White House said Trump told the Turkish leader he needed to “de-escalate,” “exercise caution,” and “limit [Turkey’s] military actions” near Manbij. The Turkish government, however, said the White House statement was inaccurate: “The two leaders’ discussion…was limited to an exchange of views.” Turkey also said Trump didn’t express concerns about “escalating violence,” as the White House had claimed.
One sad thing is we don’t really know who’s telling the truth: A dictator or the White House. But even if the White House statement is accurate, the phrases “exercise caution” and “limit” military action don’t exactly inspire confidence.
But is Trump really being soft here? We have no idea, but his relationship with Erdogan and his past Turkey policy suggests he is. Trump also sees the world through the lens of himself, and his many conflicts of interest in Turkey will absolutely factor into any policy decision he lands on, should he land on one. Check all this out.
A Real American Hero
First we have Michael Flynn, the Forrest Gump of treason, who last spring retroactively registered as a foreign agent of Turkey during the campaign. Flynn had, while serving as a senior national security adviser to the Trump campaign, accepted $530,000 dollars from Turkey in exchange for pushing Turkish interests in the United States. One of Flynn’s efforts was a plan to kidnap Erdogan’s best friend-turned-political rival Fetullah Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. Yes: Kidnap. For a $15 million ransom paid by the Turkish government. Flynn didn’t follow through, but again, he negotiated this deal while serving as one of Trump’s closest campaign advisers, and he didn’t officially disclose this to the U.S. government until over half a year later.
Flynn also published a pro-Turkey op-ed on Election Day, in which he advocated Turkey’s point of view over that of the U.S., literally: “From Turkey’s point of view, Washington is harboring Turkey’s Osama bin Laden.”
It’s worth noting that in late November, 2016, the DOJ opened an investigation into Flynn for his Turkish ties.
Did Flynn affect Trump policy? Well, in January 2016, Flynn, as Trump’s National Security Adviser, rejected U.S. military plans to advance on the Islamic State because the actions might ruffle Turkey’s feathers. Turns out we did advance on the Islamic State, and it did upset Turkey. But Turkish interests are no reason to sideline U.S. interests, and our priority in Syria is wiping out the Islamic State. For Turkey, the priority is wiping out the Kurds, with U.S. in the back seat. Those aren’t our priorities, especially considering the Kurds are our allies fighting for our interests.
But last summer, with Flynn out and the U.S.-YPG alliance in full effect, Turkish media published the secret locations of U.S. troops in northern Syria, including ten military bases. In October, the Turkish government jailed a U.S. state department employee whom it accused of espionage. That was one in a string of arrests seen by many in the U.S. and Europe as threats from Erdogan.
For every action a reaction, right? In response to all of the, the U.S. is considering shutting down its airbase in Turkey, which the Turkish government let us use to launch bombing runs into Syria. We figured we don’t really need it anymore, and it gives Erdogan leverage.
And lo and behold, this week Turkish media has been saying the Erdogan government should shut Incirlik down over the U.S. support for the YPG. When the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister was asked whether this was an option, he wouldn’t say yes or no. Erdogan, for his part, has said that even though “they tell us ‘don’t come to Manbij,’” Turkey “will come to Manbij.”
Trump <3 Erdogan
Next up we have the Trump-Erdogan bromance. But of course it’s much more likely that Erdogan is leading Trump on.
In June 2016, during Trump’s campaign, Erdogan attacked Trump for his Islamophobic positions, saying he “no tolerance for Muslims in America.” To follow that up with action, Erdogan also said Trump’s name should be taken off Trump Towers Istanbul.
Yes, there are Trump Towers in Turkey. Trump has a licensing deal there, closely affiliated with a Turkish media mogul.
Weirdly, once Trump won the election Erdogan changed his tune. He called Trump the day after the election to congratulate him, and during that call Trump boasted about his towers and talked up the owner, a friend of Trump’s who had coincidentally attended the victory party the night before.
Erdogan, we’ve got to say here, is much like Trump in that he has it in for the free press. In January 2017, Erdogan praised Trump for attacking Jim Acosta of CNN. Erdogan has also jailed about 150 journalists, and there’s ample evidence Trump would like to do the same here.
Then we have Erdogan’s White House visit last May, when his security detail beat the hell out of protesters outside the Turkish Embassy in D.C. The protesters were waving Kurdish flags. Erdogan watched the beatdown from his limo.
After the incident, the U.S. allowed Erdogan and his detail to leave the country, but then we indicted 19 of the bodyguards. According to Erdogan, though, Trump apologized to him for the indictments. The protesters, it should be said, included many American citizens.
Next exhibit, a phone call between Trump and Erdogan this past November. After the call the Turkish president said he and Trump were “a common wavelength” about Syria military policy. He also said Trump told him the U.S. would stop supplying arms to Kurdish fighters in Syria.
That seems to have alarmed Syrian Kurds, who took what seems like a fairly extreme step and asked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (not U.S. President Donald J. Trump) to protect them from the Turkish military.
That’s weird: An ally asking an enemy to protect us from our ally. Which leads us to the crazy part.
The Syrian Conflict, Explained
Here’s the context for a potential military conflict between Turkey and the U.S. in Syria.
Syrian rebels are fighting a years-long civil war against the Syrian government. We offer military support to the rebels in their effort to topple the government, which is run by a dictator.
We also support the fight against the Islamic State, which is coincidentally fighting the Syrian government and the rebels at the same time. Actually, the Islamic State is the only group here whose position is crystal clear: They’re fighting everyone.
But some of the rebels we support in their fight against the government are themselves terrorist groups or factions of terrorist groups. They’re fighting each other, the government, and us all at once. It’s impossible for outsiders like us to tell who’s who, let alone the fact that in such a mess of fighting groups are shifting sides all the time.
This means sometimes we support terrorists, which usually have turned out to be al Qaeda affiliates. This is because al Qaeda shares an interest with the U.S.: both of us want to destroy the Islamic State.
Turkey has been helping us fight the Islamic State, but has also been fighting our Kurdish allies in that fight.
Russia has been helping Assad fight the rebels, who again are backed by the U.S. military. Our confrontations with Russia have become much more frequent. In fact, Russian military contractors might have been part of a recent attack on U.S. military advisers in Syria.
Iran has also backed Assad with weapons. It’s fighting a proxy war with the U.S., and, yes, Israel, which has recently launched attacks into Syria.
Iraq is fighting the Islamic State, too, but Iran is also influencing that fight and doing its best to destabilize the Iraqi government and army.
Russia and Turkey have an uneasy alliance, mostly because of oil resources and transport. Turkey controls the Bosporus Strait, which connects Russian Black Sea ports to the rest of the world.
Last December a Turkish citizen assassinated the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, in Ankara. He said he did so in the name of Syria.
Turkey just wants the Kurds to go away. We want the Kurds to stay strong.
But Turkey also doesn’t want the Islamic State carrying out any more attacks there. Last year on New Year’s Eve an IS-inspired attacker shot up a nightclub in Istanbul.
Russia props up Iran’s nuclear program. It needs cheap oil from Iran, and really from all of these places.
So it seems that in all of this, a U.S.-Turkey conflict, a direct confrontation between two allies, would complete some sort of weird circuit. The region, obviously, can’t sustain that, because things are bad enough there. The risk of escalation is high, as is the risk of misunderstanding leading to greater conflict. The more that people start shooting at each other, the more difficult it becomes to tell who’s on your side.
At this point, the United States is looking pretty lonely. At least we’ve got a reality show host at the helm.