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U.S. Action on Syrian Kurdish Fighters Ripe for Misunderstandings with Turkey

Following a telephone call between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump on November 24, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu made a dramatic announcement. Trump, he claimed, told his Turkish counterpart that, with ISIS in retreat, the United States would end its controversial provision of arms to Syrian Kurdish fighters and, indeed, wished it would have ended earlier. However, while the administration seems to have affirmed that the Turkish side correctly reported the substance of the conversation, it seems unlikely that this marks the major policy change that Turkey has claimed. This could lead to further misunderstandings between Ankara and Washington at a time when the relationship is already tense. Worse yet, it could distract from larger strategic questions about U.S. policy in Syria that remain unanswered.

Trump’s comments, or at least Turkey’s announcement of them, appeared to catch U.S. military and diplomatic officials off guard. Lending some credence to the Turkish version of the call was President Trump’s tweet prior to speaking to Erdogan: “Will be speaking to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey this morning about bringing peace to the mess that I inherited in the Middle East. I will get it all done, but what a mistake, in lives and dollars (6 trillion), to be there in the first place!” That social media post’s tone?sounding distinctly dubious of U.S. interventions in the Middle East, even if it did overestimate their cost?certainly made it seem possible that Trump might have used the call with Erdogan as an opportunity to reduce the U.S. footprint in the region.

The official U.S. account of the call, released several hours later, did not fully confirm or deny Turkey’s version of the call. And attempts by the administration in the ensuing days to shed further light on what Trump actually said ? and what he meant by it ? have not fully succeeded in answering either question.

This discrepancy between what the Turkish side reported and what the White House has issued creates further potential problems for the relationship between Ankara and Washington.

A White House readout of the conversation between the two presidents, acknowledged that “President Trump also informed President Erdogan of pending adjustments to the military support provided to our partners on the ground in Syria, now that the battle of Raqqa is complete and we are progressing into a stabilization phase to ensure that ISIS cannot return.” It did not, however, provide a definitive statement of what form these “adjustments to military support” to Washington’s Syrian Kurdish allies would take.

The phrasing of the statement, however, suggests a much less dramatic policy reversal than announced by the Turkish government. By framing the decision as a response to the defeat of ISIS and resulting “progress into a stabilization phase,” the White House readout gives the impression that the administration is carrying out a pre-determined plan for transitioning the nature of U.S. involvement in Syria and support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as the Islamic State threat diminishes.

Trump’s announcement was in keeping with previous administration statements and not the dramatic reversal or mea culpa suggested by the Turkish foreign minister’s claim that Trump had also said that “this nonsense should have been ended sooner.” Washington has consistently claimed that its relationship with the YPG is only a temporary partnership aimed at defeating ISIS, and in fact U.S. officials had even claimed that following ISIS’s defeat, the YPG would return all the weapons it had received.

This discrepancy between what the Turkish side reported and what the White House has issued creates further potential problems for the relationship between Ankara and Washington. If Erdogan and his government sincerely believe that Trump has made a major strategic pivot and cut off ties with the YPG, they might be disappointed or come to believe they were misled. Alternatively, if the Turkish side correctly understood Trump to be marking only a transition in the nature of U.S. involvement in Syria, then Foreign Minister Cavusoglu’s statement appears to be a willful manipulation of Trump’s words. Whichever is the case, it is unlikely to make an already strained relationship, filled with Turkish recriminations of U.S. betrayals and conspiracies, any easier.

Worse still, this controversy might obscure a much-needed debate, both in and between Washington and Ankara, about what the objective and conditions of U.S. operations in Syria will be now that the Islamic State has largely been routed. Much of the debate over Trump’s comments glossed over the fact that for the YPG, weapons are no longer the most crucial form of U.S. support. Alert to the potentially fickle nature of U.S. policy, the YPG seems to have done its best to get as much military hardware as it could up front. What matters for the YPG now, after its forces have extended their reach across an oil rich and strategically important stretch of Eastern Syria, is what kind of support Washington will offer it in its coming confrontation with the Syrian central government. If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces attack the YPG southeast of Raqqa, will U.S. planes come to their aid, as they did once before? And if Assad and the YPG seek to negotiate some form of power sharing arrangement for the region, possibly brokered by Russia, will the United States use its political and military weight to ensure that Assad offers the YPG something besides complete submission?

Perhaps the most alarming possibility is that, whatever happened on the phone last Friday, Washington may not have the answers to these broader questions.

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