Turkey’s recent military offensive in Syria, which began last week, has complicated the balance of power in the Middle East and exacerbated the fractures in NATO. Knock-on effects include intensifying an already standoffish relationship between the US Congress and President Trump, emboldening disruptive forces such as Iran and Russia, and destabilising the security situation in Syria so that insurgents like Islamic State may regain control in the area.
The Turkish government claims that US-aligned Kurdish militias in Syria, like the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and People’s Protection Units (YPG), are proxies of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is a designated terrorist organisation that has waged a campaign low-level insurgency against the Turkish state for more than 30 years. Estimates of casualties throughout the conflict range between 30-40,000. Turkey believes that groups within Syria will coordinate with the PKK to wage cross border insurgency and terrorism operations. However, the SDF remains one of the United States’ most reliable partners in the region and has been one of the most successful groups in combating Islamic State.
President Trump, however, is thought to have given Turkish President Erdoğan his tacit approval to go on the offensive after the announced withdrawal of US troops from the region. President Trump’s erratic style of foreign policy and public speaking, for instance, stating that the Kurds, ‘didn’t help [the US] in the Second World War’ or ‘with Normandy,’ has illustrated a remarkable lack of strategic foresight and erodes trust in America’s security commitments.
Trump has had a tense relationship with Congress throughout his presidency, not least of all in recent weeks, when an impeachment enquiry was raised in the House of Representatives, following a whistleblower’s allegations that Trump used the Office of the Presidency to strong-arm a foreign aid recipient country to investigate his political rivals. Members on both sides of the aisle have strongly condemned President Trump’s abrupt policy shift, highlighting the importance of the Kurds in fighting Islamic State and instability in the region.
In response, on Monday, the president issued an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkey, including the raising of steel tariffs from 25% to 50% and suspending talks on a $100 billion trade deal. The Washington Post has reported that the Trump Administration has also sanctioned at least three government officials and has targeted the defence and energy ministries. However, analysts believe that the sanctions are weak and will remain ineffective. Strategically, this initial round of sanctions are likely to only solidify President Erdoğan’s domestic position and shield President Trump from increasingly hostile rhetoric and threats of tougher sanctions from the US Congress.
Following Trump’s executive order, the European Union released a statement urging member states to ‘immediately halt arms exporting licences to Turkey’. Several European powers, such as Germany, France, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands had independently halted arms exports on 14 October, with Italy joining by Monday night. The United Kingdom has put specific exports licenses under review. European powers are also working on an agreement to sanction Turkey over aggressive offshore energy polices that have antagonised both Greece and Cyprus.
The changing state of affairs has already led to a shifting in the balance of power in the Middle East, one which will likely impact global politics for years to come. With the loss of explicit support from the US, mounting casualties and some 160,000 displaced peoples, the Kurds in Northern Syria have opened up to cooperating with troops from the Assad regime, a move that was unthinkable weeks ago. Key in the Kurdish decision to realign with the Assad regime is the potential for escaped Islamic State prisoners to re-establish IS in the region.
The Turkish offensive in Syria and its response has already widened, and will continue to widen, the cracks in NATO that have persisted since the failed coup in 2016. Turkey’s policy positions post-coup have often directly undercut NATO’s strategic interests, most prominently in their involvement in the Qatar Dispute and the decision to partner with Russia and Iran in the Astana Process.
Concurrently, Russian President Vladimir Putin has travelled to Saudi Arabia for the first time in a decade. Putin’s dealings with Turkey, and brokering between the Kurds and Assad regime have likely amplified Russian power and prestige in the region and perceptions of Russia’s victory in the Syrian conflict. Saudi Arabia, another key Western ally in the region, has faced its own calls for sanctioning and weapons embargos. Add to the mix increasing bellicosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Russia may soon be perceived as the new go-to power broker for the region.
Update (Friday, 18 October):
President Trump’s unilateral decision to withdraw U.S. forces in Syria in anticipation of Turkey’s impending invasion just over one week ago remains unresolved and politically destabilising. Estimates of displaced peoples have now hit 300,000. At least 500 casualties have been reported. It is confirmed that 800 former Islamic State fighters have escaped since combat began, while another 12,000 potential escapees still reside in SDF custody. The Syrian Army has redeployed to Kurdish territory, which will likely result in the Assad regime eroding many of the hard-won political rights of the Kurds. On Tuesday, the United Kingdom, which was originally hesitant to strongly condemn or stop arms sales to Turkey finally did so, along with many other major European powers. On Wednesday, a formal letter issued from President Trump to President Erdogan began making rounds on social and print media. The letter addresses the Turkish president as ‘his excellency’ and goes on to both threaten the Turkish economy with destruction, ending with the statement, ‘don’t be a fool.’ The letter was widely mocked and it has been alleged that President Erdogan ‘threw Trump’s letter in the bin.’ Following the letter’s circulation, the US House of Representatives voted to strongly condemn the Trump administration’s Syria policy. Later that night, a bipartisan meeting between Trump and Congressional leaders ended in failure following accusatory statements and name-calling. After a meeting between US Vice President Mike Pence and President Erdogan, a tentative ceasefire was announced early on Friday.
The ceasefire calls for the withdrawal of SDF and other Kurdish forces from specific areas in order to create a Turkish ‘safe zone,’ and therefore is seen to support several of President Erdogan’s nationalist objectives. In the hours since the ceasefire’s announcement, reports indicate that its functionality is only regionally effective and that combat has continued in other areas. The ceasefire also led to the Trump Administration agreeing to lift sanctions against Turkey. One day prior, both the US Senate and the House contemplated sanctioning wide swathes of Turkish society, including the examination of President Erdogan’s personal finances and visa restrictions. Harder hitting sanctions, such as those proposed by Republican House Conference Chair Liz Cheney, called for the banning of military assistance to Turkey including within NATO, which would exacerbate already fragile NATO relationships and erode NATO’s primary operational goal, interoperability. Given the political situation, sanctions which target Turkey are now far more likely to contribute to business disruption for corporates associated with the area or with supply chains to the Middle East.