A version of this appeared at The Jerusalem Post as: How Trump’s team appeased Turkey up until its final months in office.
Trump’s State Department finally turns on Turkey after years of misleading its own partners, potentially trying to sabotage Biden as he comes into office
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The US administration of President Donald Trump enabled Turkey to invade Afrin in Syria where 150,000 Kurds were ethnically cleansed in 2018 and then followed up by enabling Turkey to attack US partners in Eastern Syria in October 2019. Now, after years of trying to give Ankara everything it wanted, including sacrificing partners, prestige, the US role in Syria, and even letting Americans be detained in Turkey, a US consulate worker imprisoned, and a US pastor held hostage, the US State Department is hinting that it has had enough.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on a final major trip to Europe and the Middle East, traversing Turkey on the way. He was quoted in Le Figaro as saying that the US and Europe need to address Turkey’s actions in the Middle East. In the last year Turkey has increasingly threatened NATO allies, such as France and Greece. Turkey’s regime, which is run by the far-right AK Party and which is the largest jailor of journalists in the world, frequently targeting people for any critique on social media of Turkey’s government, has been inciting against France in recent months. Turkey’s incitement led to anti-French rallies as far away as Pakistan and there have been several terror attacks against France, both in France and in Saudi Arabia. A church was also attacked in Syria by pro-Turkish rioters.
Pompeo’s decision to get tough on Turkey comes a year after his own administration opened the border in northern Syria so Turkey could attack America’s partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, forcing some 200,000 civilians from their home, bombing minority Christian communities and ethnically cleansing them. Locals in eastern Syria who had been working with US officials just weeks before, such as Future Party leader Hevrin Khalaf, were hunted down and murdered by Turkish-backed Syrian extremists, many of them shouting jihadist and antisemitic slogans reminiscent of ISIS.
“France’s President Emmanuel Macron and I agree that Turkey’s recent actions have been very aggressive,” Pompeo said. He cited the war in Azerbaijan where Turkey encouraged Baku to attack Armenian forces in the disputed area of Nagorna Karabkah. Turkey sent Syrian mercenaries, recruited from Syrian refugee camps, to attack Armenians. The war resulted in more Christian minorities being ethnically-cleansed and forced to flee. This is now at least the third region where Turkey has used Syrian extremists, many who chant religious slogans against Jews, Kurds and Armenians, to ethnically cleanse an area. Ankara began this process in Afrin, expelling Kurds and Yazidis, and followed it up in Tel Abyad and now Nagorna-Karabkah. It is the largest expulsion of minorities by Turkey since the massacres and genocides of the First World War in the Ottoman Empire.
“Europe and the US must work together to convince [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan such actions are not in the interest of his people,” Pompeo said. This is the usual US rhetoric which ignores the fact that Erdogan and his supporters believe wholeheartedly in their actions. Turkish media, which is largely controlled by the government or pro-government, is ordered by Ankara to support the aggression. Those who call for peace in Turkey is jailed under anti-terrorism laws.
The Pompeo phrasing, of trying to convince Erdogan, ignores the reality of his own years in office in which the US did everything to give Turkey what it wanted, only encouraging more attacks. The State Department was influenced by a powerful pro-Ankara lobby in the US, made up of former diplomats and some members of think tanks who tend to put Turkey’s interests first. They argued that Turkey was an ally of the US against Russia and Iran. This ignored the fact that Turkey was working with Russia and Iran to undermine the US role in Syria. The lobby in the US also wanted to undo the Obama administration’s legacy of success in Syria. TO do so they wanted to sabotage the US partnership with the SDF.
Even though the SDF was created with US support in 2015 and even though the US trained some 80,000 members of the Kurdish-led force and encouraged them to fight and sacrifice to defeat ISIS in Raqqa in 2017, the goal of the pro-Ankara lobby was to use the SDF to defeat ISIS and then give eastern Syria to Turkey and expel the SDF. Towards this end the State Department worked with other groups in Syria, including parts of the Syrian opposition backed by Turkey, but didn’t even work with America’s own partners on the ground. This was due to competition between Central Command and US Special Forces who were working with the SDF and the State Department. Each part of the US government had their favorites in Syria and worked to sabotage the rest of US policy. Pompeo, rather than coordinating that, fed into it.
Turkey began its push with the Trump administration with a show of force in Washington. During a Turkish presidential visit in May 2017 Turkish security attacked peaceful protesters in Washington, an unprecedented attack on US soil. US administration officials, working with the pro-Ankara lobby, made sure the incident, which had shocked US media, was quietly forgotten and cases dismissed. To pressure the US the Turkish government then began taking hostages. It detained and then sentenced an innocent US consular employee on invented “terrorism” charges. Turkey wanted a cleric extradited from the US. It had tried to get Trump’s first National Security Advisor to help on this case, but had failed. To remedy this Ankara then took a US pastor, Andrew Brunson, hostage on more fake charges of “terrorism.” Turkey’s president suggested a trade of the cleric, Fethullah Gulen, for the pastor. This is not how US allies behave, kidnapping Americans to trade them. But the US nevertheless continued the appeasement. A Us soldier was also detained to pressure the US in 2018. US journalists were harassed or expelled.
Turkey also upped its rhetoric against the Trump administration’s pro-Israel policies. After the US said it would move the embassy to Jerusalem in December 2017, Turkey’s government sought to make Jerusalem a rallying cry. Using slogans borrowed from the Iranian regime, Turkey said that it would “liberate” Al-Aqsa mosque in a presidential statement in 2019. It said “Jerusalem is ours” and upped funding for Muslim Brotherhood linked groups in Jerusalem. It hosted conferences with Palestinian leaders and the King of Jordan. In 2019 it went further, hosting Hamas leaders in December 2019 and then again in February 2020 and August 2020. Reports in media in the UK said that Hamas was planning terror attacks from Turkey and receiving visas from the government. It was even planning cyber attacks from Turkey. The US State Department finally critiqued Turkey for its red carpet for Hamas terrorists on August 26, 2020. This was the first indication that Ankara’s support for extremist groups had caught Washington’s attention.
On Syria the US sought to appease Turkey as well. In January 2018 Turkey accused the US of “training terrorists,” in Syria. Turkey claims the SDF is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK. Turkey once had a peace process with the PKK but that broke down in 2015. Turkey then used the breakdown of peace talks to launch a massive war against the PKK, first in Turkey in 2015 and then expanding it into Syria to stop the SDF. In 2018 Turkey, using 25,000 Syrian rebels it had recruited, invaded Afrin in northwest Syria, expelling Kurds who were linked to the People’s Protection Units (YPG). This had been a safe haven in Syria, away from the maelstrom of Syria’s civil war. It was plunged into killing inn 2018 and taken over by Ankara-backed extremist groups. Under Ankara’s security umbrella groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is linked to Al Qaeda, flourished. Moderate rebels were sidelined or co-opted into the Syrian National Army, to be used by Turkey to fight Kurds while Turkey signed deals with the Russians and Iranians in Syria in 2017 and 2018.
Ankara’s calculation was largely political. The left-leaning HDP party was gaining strength in the 2015 elections so Turkey kept having elections to try to reduce their votes. When that didn’t work Turkey lifted parliamentary immunity in 2016 and began jailing the opposition. Kurdish mayors from the HDP were removed, including 60 out of 65 mayors linked to the party. Turkey also became a presidential system in 2017 so Erdogan could remain in office forever, consolidating control. An attempted coup in 2016 enabled the regime to remove or jail some 150,000 government officials. The US remained silent as democracy evaporated in Turkey and minority towns were bulldozed under the pretext of fighting “terrorism.”
The US silence was largely due to decades in which Turkey had roped the US into fighting the PKK, with Turkey claiming it was helping the US in the war on terror. The US supplied Ankara with intelligence from drones to help hunt the PKK. In November 2018, to make Turkey happy, the US even put multi-million dollar bounties on key PKK figures, even though the PKK had not attacked the US for years and had been seeking peace talks. The bounties were designed by Ankara and its friends in Washington to make it harder for the US to conduct policy in Syria.
This was because Turkey immediately said after the bounties that the US should stop work with the SDF. Ankara’s role in Syria was duplicitous. Former US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter wrote in 2017 that Turkey had not only let extremists transit its border back and forth to Syria, but reluctantly joined the anti-ISIS coalition, preferring to fight US-backed Kurdish fighters instead. Turkey stalled for time, arguing it would help take Raqqa from ISIS. The US eventually got tired of waiting. But Turkey wasn’t done. ISIS members fled Raqqa to Turkey and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s family even transited Turkey to Idlib where the US found and killed him near the Turkish border in October 2019. How did the world’s most wanted terrorist live under an area mostly controlled by Turkey in Syria, so close to Turkey’s border.
Meanwhile as US officials watched Turkey’s regime erode democracy and harass and hold hostage US citizens in Turkey, as well as increasingly host Hamas, American diplomats tried to salvage the relationship. Turkey had decided to buy Russia’s S-400 system in 2017 and this caused the US to warn Ankara that it would be removed from the prestigious F-35 program. The US begged Turkey not to take delivery of the Russian system, and even when it did the US asked Turkey not to turn the system on. By the summer of 2020 Turkey had turned the system on, used it to harass a Greek F-16, and tested it. Turkish pilots training with the F-35 were sent home. As late as March 2020 Turkey had got the US to offer Patriot missiles to Turkey if the S-400 wasn’t switched on. Then Turkey asked US lobbyists in DC to arrange another idea, the US should pay Turkey to send the S-400 back to Russia. This was apparently too much for Washington. Paying for Russian equipment that NATO allies shouldn’t have acquired was a bridge too far.
In Syria Kurdish anti-ISIS fighters were expressing another concern to the Trump team. After Afrin they wondered if the US would leave Syria. US official William Roebuck reportedly assured them the US couldn’t stop the Afrin invasion but would stick with them in eastern Syria. Afrin was sacrificed to keep Rojava, the Kurdish area the SDF controlled in Syria. US officials led by former US ambassador James Jeffrey, who had been appointed the anti-ISIS official and Syria engagement point person by Trump, had a different idea. They told Turkey in December 2018 the US work with the SDF in Syria was not long term. It was “tactical, temporary and transactional.” The Syrian Kurds were told their future would be to work with Damascus or the opposition, but not the US. “we do not have permanent relationships with substate entities. That is not the policy of this administration and has not been the policy of other administrations.”
At the same time the US was saying the SDF and its civilian arm known as the SDC, or the political party behind it, the PYD, the US and Turkey also worked to excluded America’s own Kurdish partners from any representation in Geneva talks regarding the future of Syria. The US diplomats thus worked to exclude America’s military partners in Syria, telling them the relationship was temporary and that they should look elsewhere for friends. The SDC sent representatives to Moscow and Damascus. At the same time pro-Ankara lobbyists in the US told people that the SDF was close to Iran and working with Russia. This created a bizarre scenario where the US isolated and misled its own partners to please Turkey, and then accused its own partners of working with Russia or Damascus, when it had told them to do so. Meanwhile Turkey was buying Russia’s S-400, plowing billions in Moscow’s pockets, and building a pipeline with Russia.
The US role in eastern Syria came apart in the summer and fall 2019. Turkey told the US it would invade Syria and provided maps, even showing one off a the UN in September 2019, demanding that Turkey be allowed to colonize northern Syria as a “buffer zone” against “terrorism.” Kurds would be expelled and up to five million mostly Syrian Arab refugees from other parts of Syria would be settled in former Kurdish areas such as Qamishli, Derik, Serekeniye and Kobani. Rather than opposing ethnic-cleansing the US administration sent European Command, which works closely with Turkey as part of NATO, to discuss joint Turkish patrols in Syria. A “security mechanism” was created along the border and the SDF was ordered by the US, the same US officials who had excluded the SDF from Geneva and told them the relationship was tactical, to remove defensive positions near Tel Abyad. Turkey claimed to the US that the defensive positions were a threat. Meanwhile Turkey moved its forces into place for an invasion and gathered thousands of Syrian rebels, shouting slogans against Kurds, to help conduct the invasion. Without even telling Jeffrey or Pompeo, the US president held calls with Erdogan, and then ordered the US to leave Syria in a surprising statement in October 2019.
Two weeks later Turkey had succeeded, conquering part of northern Syria and sowing chaos between the US and its SDF partners. 200,000 people had fled and Russia and Turkey signed a deal. Soon Russia and Turkey were doing joint patrols, the same ones Turkey had misled the US about before the October invasion. Turkey preferred working with Russia in Idlib and eastern Syria to working with the US. It also preferred sitting with Iranian regime officials to partition Turkey as part of the Russia-backed Astana talks. When the US said it would stay in part of Syria to protect oil Turkey then said in May 2017 it wanted the oil in Syria also.
The pro-Turkey lobby in the US, which had been supportive of the Trump administration, was disheartened by developments between 2019 and 2020 as Ankara showed that no matter how much it got in Syria it would prefer Russia and Iran to the US. The talking points shifted as US President-elect Joe Biden came on stage in November 2020. Now Biden was critiqued for wanting an “endless war” in Syria.
At the same time James Jeffrey, who had worked since 2018 to salvage a pro-Ankara policy, even being mocked by Ankara in February 2020, left his post after the Biden win. Jeffrey was quoted in an article at Defense One that the US had misled Turkey about staying in Syria. “We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” Jeffrey said. The US actually had more than the several hundred troops it was claiming to have. Turkey’s state media TRT noted the US misleading statements, claiming “under Turkish pressure, Trump last year announced US troop withdrawal from northern Syria.” This illustrates that Turkey was against the US role in the region. TRT included assertions that the US role in Syria and Iraq is “imperialist,” a talking point that Russia, pro-Syria regime and Iranian regime narratives all parrot. Meanwhile Jeffrey told the interviewer that there was no Syria withdrawal, the US had stayed in Syria.
The US withdrawal had cost Hevrin Khalaf her life though. More than 200,000 had fled. US officials didn’t notice those civilians. However, years of trying to give Turkey everything it wanted not only led to US citizens being held hostage by Ankara, but a bizarre last-minute attempt by Pompeo to claim the US would work with France against Turkey, and an attempt by Jeffrey to either humiliate the Trump administration, Turkey or to make the Biden administration’s efforts more difficult by claiming troop numbers were more than stated.
This is the final US role in Syria and dealing with Turkey in this administration. Pompeo appears to be humiliated in his trip, not planning to meet Ankara’s officials, because Turkey now treats the US like a second-rate power. US officials who helped undermine their own military’s role in Syria, now throw Biden a controversy and may sabotage what’s left of the US role in Syria. The US sidelined its own partners, isolated them and misled them. Washington’s unwillingness to take Turkey seriously years ago led to Ankara hosting Hamas terrorists, and empowered Ankara’s threats against Armenia, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, the UAE and other countries, rampaging among US allies and radicalizing extremists who target minorities in Syria and target France. One lesson from it all is that if the US wants to deal with Turkey it needs to get Turkey to actually do something for the US as a trade off, and not just give Ankara everything it wants while Ankara works to sabotage US policy and work with terrorists.