How is this guy still whining about Trump’s weird letter after the White House gave him everything he could have hoped for in northern Syria? “This just looks like a complete cave-in by the United States to everything the Turks demanded,” said a former Bush natsec official to the NYT. “I don’t see what the Turks gave up.” Erdogan demanded a 20-mile buffer zone along the border free from Kurdish control so that he could repatriate Turkey’s many millions of Syrian refugees. He was prepared to use force to make it happen, and did in fact end up using force. Stop right there, Trump yelled — and let me join you in your demand that the Kurds cleanse themselves from the border region, with the killing to resume presumably without objection from the White House if the Kurds don’t comply within five days.
Not only did we side with him, we did it after he’d snubbed the United States repeatedly this year. “In essence,” writes Eli Lake, “America has agreed to let Turkey solve its Syrian refugee problem by creating a new Kurdish refugee problem.” And it agreed to this at a moment when it had every reason to bear Erdogan a grudge:
Then there is the message this sends to Erdogan himself. The Turkish leader has humiliated Trump and the U.S. in recent weeks and months. He went ahead with the purchase of a Russian S-400 air defense system this summer, over several U.S. objections, and has faced no sanctions. He ordered his military to violate an earlier safe-haven agreement that to which Turkey had previously agreed. His forces fired artillery on a U.S. outpost last week. And he has metaphorically — and literally, according to the BBC — thrown Trump’s “Don’t be a tough guy” letter into the trash.
Lake didn’t even mention the notorious episode from 2017 when Erdogan’s goons stomped American protesters while the Turkish leader was visiting D.C., leaving one demonstrator with brain damage. Trump didn’t care. If Turkey wanted a Kurd-free northern Syria then a Kurd-free northern Syria is what it would get, with America’s blessing.
All of that — and Erdogan’s still whining about the letter.
“President Trump’s letter, which did not go hand in hand with political and diplomatic courtesy, has appeared in the media,” Erdogan said Friday during a news conference about the Syria-Turkey cease-fire deal, according to a translation. “Of course we haven’t forgotten it. It would not be right for us to forget it.”…
“For our relationship, there’s no point to dwell on this letter,” Erdogan told reporters on Friday. “This is not a priority for us, but when the time comes, we would like it to be known that we will take the necessary steps.”
Maybe this comes with the territory of being a strongman. Sure, Erdogan just pantsed America by getting the president to endorse his ethnic cleansing operation, but many Turks read Trump’s letter. They saw his disrespect towards Erdogan, and by extension towards Turkey, firsthand. A strongman is obliged to avenge a sense of national grievance and to occasionally remind his subjects that he doesn’t treat disrespect lightly. Erdogan’s just checking the box and filing this away as something he can cite opportunistically the next time he makes life difficult for the United States. (“Remember Trump’s letter?”)
In the meantime, Turkish diplomats are laughing at the president:
— Ambassador Namik Tan (@NamikTan) October 18, 2019
It was inevitable once Trump and Erdogan made their bargain that the president would be stuck defending it with every rhetorical device available to him. One device is to minimize the damage Turkey’s already done to the Kurds, comparing the invasion to a schoolyard fight in which you have to let the kids swing a little before breaking them up. Another device is to simply accept the Turks’ explanation of events at face value so that Americans can be assured that they’re honoring their end of the deal:
As a response to this, watch the “Fox & Friends” clip below from this morning featuring Griff Jenkins, who’s talking to sources in Syria. Jenkins appears to doubt whether there’s been any ceasefire at all and blames the continued assault on Turkish proxies, specifically the Free Syrian Army. It may be that Erdogan has agreed to hold back regular Turkish military forces for five days while quietly authorizing irregular forces to continue the advance, assuring Trump that he can’t control them and claiming that in any case there’s not much shooting happening anyway. Meanwhile, a spokesman for Kurdish forces has told the media that it can’t and won’t comply with Trump’s deal by withdrawing from the border area until Turkey stops bombing the town of Ras al-Ayn, which is where most of the fighting in Jenkins’s report is happening. For his part, Erdogan warned today that if the Kurds aren’t gone when the ceasefire expires in four days the invasion will resume. It might be a hairy 96 hours.
On top of all that, WaPo is reporting that ISIS attacks have picked up in northern Syria as jihadis try to capitalize on the chaos to reestablish themselves. Erdogan and Putin are set to meet on Tuesday to try to figure some of this out. Stay tuned.