(Stalingrad of Syrian war: ancient Syrian city of Raqqa after US bombing)
On December 17, Ankara was notified of President Trump’s decision on troop withdrawal from Syria. During an earlier phone conversation between him and President Recep Erdogan on Dec 14, Trump had pointedly asked and elicited a positive response from the Turkish leader as to whether Turkey would have the capability to eliminate the remnants of the ISIS in the Syrian tract east of the Euphrates in the event of a US withdrawal from Syria. Erdogan reportedly “reaffirmed” Turkey’s commitment to fight the ISIS.
Ankara likely shared this information with Moscow and Tehran. The three foreign ministers met in Geneva on Dec 19 for a trilateral meeting as guarantors of the Astana format on Syria. The joint statement issued after the meeting, therefore, can be seen as indicative of Turkey’s resolve to give primacy to the trilateral format with Russia and Iran on issues concerning Syria.
To be sure, Turkey will have issues to take up with the Trump administration in the coming days and weeks. As one commentator put it, “For example, will the U.S. collect the weapons provided to the YPG? What measures will the U.S. take for preventing a chaos in the region after the withdrawal? All these require more military and political talks between Turkey and the U.S. Turkey will continue to cautiously follow the situation in Syria.”
However, senior Turkish officials have made it clear that the planned military operations against Syrian Kurds will continue to unfold. Defence Minister Hulusi Akar has been quoted by the state news agency Anadolu as saying, “Now we have Manbij and the east of the Euphrates in front of us. We are working intensively on this subject. Right now it is being said that some ditches, tunnels were dug in Manbij and to the east of the Euphrates. They (Kurds) can dig tunnels or ditches if they want, they can go underground if they want, when the time and place comes they will buried in the ditches they dug. No one should doubt this.”
Yesterday, Erdogan told the visiting Iranian president Hassan Rouhani that Ankara hopes to work closer with Tehran to end the fighting in Syria. Erdogan said at a joint press conference with Rouhani, “There are many steps that Turkey and Iran can take together to stop the fighting in the region and to establish peace. Syria’s territorial integrity must be respected by all sides. Both countries are of the same opinion regarding this.” Significantly, Erdogan also voiced Turkey’s support for Iran (“brotherly nation”) against the US sanctions.
However, Ankara is yet to make an official statement regarding Trump’s Syrian pullout plan. All three countries – Turkey, Russia and Iran – seem skeptical about Trump’s clout to enforce his decision overcoming resistance from the Pentagon. From such a perspective, the resignation of Defence Secretary James Mattis on December 20 will come as confirmation that Trump is indeed forcing his political will, exercising his presidential prerogative to take foreign policy decisions as well as insisting on his supreme authority as commander-in-chief to decide on issues of war involving the US armed forces.
Unlike Turkey and Iran, Russia has voiced opinions on Trump’s withdrawal plans. President Vladimir Putin stated at a press conference in Moscow on Dec 20:
“As concerns the defeat of ISIS, overall I agree with the President of the United States. I already said that we achieved significant progress in the fight against terrorism… There is a risk of these and similar groups migrating to neighbouring regions… We know that, we understand the risk fully. Donald is right about that, and I agree with him.”
“As concerns the withdrawal of American troops, I do not know what that is. The United States have been present in, say, Afghanistan, for how long? Seventeen years, and every year they talk about withdrawing the troops. But they are still there. This is my second point.”
“Third… The current issue on the agenda is building a constitutional committee… We submitted the list to the UN… Maybe not by the end of this year but in the beginning of the next the list will be agreed and this will open the next stage of the settlement, which will be political settlement.”
“Is the presence of American troops required there? I do not think it is. However, let us not forget that their presence… is illegitimate… The military contingent can only be there under a resolution of the UN Security Council or at the invitation of the legitimate Syrian Government…. So, if they decide to withdraw their troops, it is the right decision.”
Overall, Putin commended Trump’s decision, while keeping fingers crossed that the focus is shifting to the political process will gain traction. Putin didn’t mince words in calling the US intervention in Syria as a violation of international law and UN Charter. The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov who spoke later in a TV interview was also quite upfront: “The American presence on the Syrian soil is not conductive to attaining the goals of a political and diplomatic solution.” (TASS)
Neither Russia nor Turkey and Iran would expect a cooperative attitude from the American side in a near term over Syria. The US has a stony heart when it comes to Syria’s reconstruction – although it caused immense destruction in that country during its occupation. The US military will be leaving behind a trail of bitterness in Syria. The three other protagonists understood perfectly well that Pentagon commanders were fighting a secretive geopolitical war against each of them. “Good riddance” – that must be the refrain in Ankara, Moscow and Tehran.