It’s a startling turn of events. For years, Turkey watched with frustration as more distant powers — from the United States to Russia to Iran — imposed their will on the bloody Syrian conflict to its south. For years, to no avail, Turkey demanded that the United States end its support of a controversial Syrian Kurdish faction with alleged links to an outlawed separatist group within its borders. For years, Turkey fumed at a hostile Washington, a putative ally whose politicians, for a host of reasons, often cast Ankara as an adversary.
All of that has suddenly changed, largely thanks to President Donald Trump.
It was Trump who, less than two weeks ago, acquiesced to a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria, abandoning those in the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. It was Trump who, despite a vociferous backlash in Washington, started to echo Turkish talking points about the SDF being “communists” and “terrorists.” And it was Trump who on Thursday hailed a “deal” clinched with Turkey that effectively satisfied most of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s demands while also relieving him of the looming threat of U.S. sanctions on his country’s vulnerable economy.
After hours of meetings at Erdogan’s presidential palace, Vice President Mike Pence announced that Turkey had agreed to pause its offensive for five days, during which the United States would help facilitate the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from a belt of territory along the Syrian-Turkish border. There was no indication of when, or even if, Turkey would withdraw from a vast designated “safe zone” spanning the Turkish border that extends some 20 miles into Syria.
As The Washington Post reported, the Trump administration had also agreed not to impose any new economic sanctions on Turkey, and to withdraw sanctions that were imposed earlier this week once “a permanent cease-fire was in effect,” Pence said.
By Thursday night, it was far from clear what sort of cease-fire had come into effect. Turkish officials refused to even use the term. They view the main force within the SDF — a Syrian Kurdish group known as the YPG — as a direct extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a banned terrorist organization that’s fought a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. In the joint communiqué that followed Pence and Erdogan’s meeting, both sides committed to the YPG’s withdrawal from territory along the Turkish border. (Neither Pence nor Trump made any acknowledgment Thursday of the more than 11,000 Kurdish fighters who died on the front lines of the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State.)
Though SDF officials agreed to a cessation of hostilities around certain flash points, they didn’t confirm plans to withdraw fully from positions along the border. And the arrival of the Syrian regime and allied Russian forces to northeastern Syria — another consequence of Trump’s maneuvering this week — further complicates the picture.
The new understanding between Turkey and the United States is “a big gift [to Turkey] if the agreement sticks,” Gonul Tol, director of Turkish studies at the Middle East Institute think tank, told Today’s WorldView. “It is everything Erdogan asked for — a 20-mile-deep zone, off-limits to the YPG, and sanctions will be lifted if the cease-fire holds. The problem is, there are Russian and regime forces in that area, which makes the implementation of the deal difficult.”
Erdogan is set to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin early next week in talks that may highlight the extent to which Syria’s political future is controlled by policymakers in Ankara and Moscow.
Trump justified his decision to cut and run from northeastern Syria as a fulfillment of his desire to disentangle the United States from a thicket of conflicts in the Middle East. But removing what was still a relatively tiny footprint — especially compared to American deployments elsewhere in the region, which Trump has not touched — triggered a far larger geopolitical earthquake. The Assad regime recovered more territory in a few days than it had in many months. And social media footage of Russian soldiers and journalists gloating amid abandoned U.S. military camps told their own story.
In Washington, there were more howls of disapproval. “The cease-fire does not change the fact that America has abandoned an ally, adding insult to dishonor,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaking in defense of the SDF on the floor of the Senate. “The administration speaks cavalierly, even flippantly, even as our ally has suffered death and casualty. Their homes have been burned and their families have been torn apart.”
Trump, though, won’t pay much heed. He has chosen to prioritize mending fences with Erdogan’s Turkey — a bête noire for many lawmakers on the Hill — over safeguarding the autonomy of the communities backed by the SDF. Officials close to the Trump administration speak also of a close personal bond between Trump and the Turkish leader — in keeping with his affinity with other strongmen around the world.
“With Erdogan, Trump seems to have found a soul mate,” The Post reported this week. “Not only does he consider the Turkish leader ‘a tough guy who deserves respect’ and ‘a friend,’ according to another former senior official, Erdogan has now provided Trump with a way to at least partially achieve his campaign promise to remove U.S. forces from the Middle East.”
The feeling may be somewhat mutual. Even an absurdly worded letter Trump sent Erdogan last week — telling his Turkish counterpart not to “be a fool” or a “tough guy” — didn’t disrupt the rapprochement underway.
“Despite his undiplomatic manners, [Trump] gets it more right than the [U.S.] foreign and security policy establishment,” a senior Turkish official said in an interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to the press. The official argued that America’s continued alliance with the SDF was untenable and only “pushed Russia, Iran and Turkey closer together,” undermining longer term U.S. interests. Unlike many politicians in Washington, the official claimed, Trump understood the deeper challenge.
Even as analysts panned his seeming capitulation to Ankara, Trump was exultant. “It’s a great day for the United States, it’s a great day for Turkey,” he told reporters on Thursday in Texas. “A great day for the Kurds, it’s a great day for civilization, a great day for civilization.”
But at what cost? According to U.N. and human rights monitors, about 300,000 people have been forced from their homes and at least 71 people have been killed since Turkey launched its operation into northeastern Syria.