Two Scenarios: Will Trump really stop arming Syrian Kurds?

by The Region   Getty Images  


On Friday, the office of the Turkish presidency and the Turkish Foreign Ministry declared that Trump had a "productive" conversation with Erdogan, where he discussed plans by the U.S. to stop arming the Kurdish YPJ/YPG and aid in efforts by the Turkish state to fight IS, the PKK, and the Gulenist Organization.

Will the Trump Administration turn their backs on their Kurdish allies in the fight against IS, or was this declaration another way to appease Ankara? There are at least two plausible scenarios. 

Scenario 1: The Trump Administration is telling the truth 

The Raqqa campaign to expel IS from one of their last strongholds was concluded last month. The Islamic State is on the verge of collapse in Syria and the next step for the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria is to reconstruct Raqqa and allow for internally displaced persons to return home.

Since Kurds took centre stage in the fight against IS in Syria, they have been in a tactical relationship with the United-States. A US-led coalition began to openly provide Syrian Kurds with weaponry and tactical advice, especially after IS threatened to take over the majority Kurdish city of Kobane. The Syrian Kurdish partners to the coalition have ideological links with Abdullah Ocalan, a cofounder of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), but they claim to be organizationally separate from the PKK. The United States also publicly holds this position as well, which angers the Turkish Government. The Turkish Government believes that the YPJ/YPG forces are actually just the Syrian section of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party.  

When the liberation of Raqqa was announced, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and Turkmen battalions placed a huge portrait of Abdullah Ocalan in the centre of the city. It was a way to make their ideological allegiances known. To Turkey, however, this was outrageous, and to the United States (which has an open relationship with both of them), this was a difficult position to be in.

"We condemn the display of PKK leader and founder Abdullah Ocalan during the liberation of Raqqa", U.S Department of Defense spokesperson Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway told reporters. "The United States continues to support our NATO ally Turkey in its multi-decade struggle against the PKK". 

Could it be possible that now the United States is finished with the Raqqa campaign, it want's to mend its relationship with Turkey and abandon the Kurds it needed to fight IS?  Just a day prior to the phone conversation between Trump and Erdogan, Turkey was engaging in the Sochi talks with Russia and Iran, and the overtures that Turkey has made to these forces hasn't remained solely in the domain of peace talks. Earlier this year, they negotiated a de-escalation zone in the Jihadist held Idlib province of Syria. And when the Kurdish independence referendum was announced in Iraq, Turkey invited the Chief of Staff, Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri to discuss, among other things, how both countries could deal with their Kurdish Question. Two days ago, Turkey even finalised an agreement with Russia to buy S-400 anti-aircraft weaponry, even as NATO raised a voice of protest.

A Nato ally moving closer towards Russia and Iran is bad business for the United States. Maybe the United States is willing to, effectively, betray the very partners that were necessary to defeat the IS threat in Syria, if that might mean preventing Turkey from becoming buddies with Russia and Iran.

Scenario 2: The Trump Administration is lying 

When reporting on the diplomatic shift, the Associated Press argued that the Department of State and the Pentagon appeared to be caught off-guard with the phone conversation between Erdogan and Trump. The Trump administration could be lying for the very same reasons that it would tell the truth, to ease the anxieties of its long-standing ally: Turkey. One of the peculiar aspects of the phone conversation between Erdogan and Trump, was the latter's promise to help fight the Gulenist Organization.

What makes the statement strange, is the very reason why the relationship between the two countries isn't the best. Washington has refused to hand over Gulen to Turkey without a formal extradition process. If they truly believed him to be a terrorist threat, this would have been an obvious first step to fight the Gulenists.

Erdogan and the ruling AKP party in Turkey argue that Gulen was the mastermind behind the failed coup attempt in July 2016. Angered that the United States hasn't shipped him off from his palace in Pennsylvania, Turkey went so far as to offer ex-Trump aide Mike Flynn $15 Million if he could secure the delivery of Gulen to Ankara.  

To the Turkish Government, Gulen is a master infiltrator, responsible for tainting not only their own political system (schools, police force and the military) but even the political system of the United States. Writing for Politico, Steven A. Cook has noted that the Government mouthpieces of Turkey have argued that Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Richard Berman, a federal district court judge, and Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader are ... you guessed it ... Gulenists. And why? Because they are charging Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab for evading sanctions against Iran. A move that has enraged Turkey. 

This hasn't been the only problem between the two countries. When Turkey arrested an employee of the U.S. embassy on charges of being a Gulenist, the United States responded by suspending all non-immigrant visa services in Turkey. Turkey returned the gesture in kind. And in June, when the U.S. issued arrest warrants for 12 members of Erdogan security staff for beating up peaceful protesters in Washington D.C, Erdogan publicly called the move "unacceptable". 

At this point, when the relationship between the countries is so strained, concessions over the phone might at least help both leaders pretend that everything is fine. In other words, a public relations stunt with two countries in the process of getting a divorce. 

The United States has insisted that it would not immediately pull out of Syria, and abandon its Kurdish allies without developing a UN-mandated peace plan which can leave the Kurds protected from other forces not happy with the power and territory they have accumulated. Last week, Mattis told reporters that "We're not going to just walk right now". The United States will be working with its Kurdish partners, in a new phase they label as one of "stabilisation". It's difficult to see them succeed without a stable relationship with the Syria's Kurds.

These are at least two potential scenarios, which one do you think is the most plausible?