When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan got on the phone with the White House last Friday, he wasn’t in much of a negotiating position. Facing economic recession, double-digit inflation, and strong opposition candidates in the run-up to local elections in March, the Turkish president might have expected some arm-twisting from his U.S. counterpart. Instead, Erdogan on Wednesday received two huge gifts from Donald Trump — gifts that undermine America’s efforts to work with Syrian partners and rebuff Russian influence.
The first gift is the announcement of U.S. withdrawal from Syria. According to The Wall Street Journal, Pentagon “has an order to move troops out of Syria as quickly as possible.” Reuters quoted a U.S. official saying that Washington aims to “withdraw troops within 60 to 100 days” and the State Department “was evacuating all its personnel in Syria within 24 hours.”
Ankara has been threatening military operations against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a key component of the Syrian Democratic Forces, America’s Syrian partner in the fight against the Islamic State. The U.S. has troops stationed in the territory, and so far has refrained from giving Erdogan a green light for a cross-border operation.
The second gift is the approval for the sale of Patriot missiles to Ankara. Instead of cancelling the order for Russian-made S-400 air defense system, Turkish officials said that they intend to buy both. Yet the S-400 is not only incompatible with NATO systems, but Turkey’s use of it alongside the F-35 would compromise the joint strike fighter’s stealth capabilities. Erdogan understands the technicalities, but this matter is as much about his personal protection as it is about his anti-Westernism, manifested repeatedly in his threats to the United States.
This dual accommodation of Erdogan through a pullout of U.S. forces from Syria and appeasement of his move to procure Russian military equipment is a windfall in the run up to Turkey’s local elections. Erdogan, desperate to divert the Turkish electorate’s attention from the country’s economic tailspin, has been reviving old enemies to appeal to his base, including George Soros, Gezi Park protesters, and Kurds. A military campaign targeting Syrian Kurdish rebels would provide the perfect “wag the dog” distraction from bankruptcies and currency devaluation at home.
By appeasing Erdogan when he is at his weakest and most vulnerable in the run up to elections, Trump is repeating old mistakes made with previous troop withdrawals, while increasing moral hazard. Such acts are dangerous not only for the Middle East, but also for the transatlantic alliance itself.
In order to placate an uncooperative and unreliable strongman, the Trump administration is choosing to ignore his immediate predecessor’s errors, not learn from them. Contrary to the administration’s claims, the Islamic State is not defeated, but rather returning to its insurgent roots. In November, the Pentagon stated that eliminating ISIS from the region “could take years.” The key political and economic components of ISIS’ rise to power in Syria and Iraq are still present, if not more so given Russian and Iranian military aggression in the region.
At a minimum, U.S. withdrawal from the country will allow the terror network to regroup. Most likely, such a move will also render America unprepared for the next violent manifestation of Islamic radicalism, i.e., Islamic State 2.0. Sacrificing future American security from terrorist threats, in exchange for no hint of change of attitude from Erdogan, is simply bad policy.
Appeasing Erdogan also weakens Washington’s Iran policy. The Trump administration has committed to keeping Iran within its borders – pulling out of Syria will do the opposite. Deserting Kurdish, Arab, and Syriac partners among the ranks of the SDF in northern Syria also sends the message to both America’s friends and enemies that the U.S. is an unreliable partner.
If those costs are not enough, the S-400 crisis will continue, despite attempts to reward an autocrat for bad behavior. Erdogan is committed to the Russian weapons system, which will destabilize NATO’s southern flank and set alarming precedents for future Russian interference and expansionism in Europe.
What happens now if Hungarian President Viktor Orban decides to buy the S-400 “closer to home?” While others, such as Slovakia, are proactively “cutting off” Russian hardware, there are rumors that Budapest plans to buy more. As the Chief of Staff of the Hungarian Defense Forces noted, “[we] are not obliged to buy military equipment exclusively from NATO member states.” As Central Europe slides backwards democratically and re-enters Moscow’s orbit, appeasing a wayward NATO member-state sends the wrong signal.
The United States must stay the course in Syria. As the President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haas put it, America has a moral obligation to its allies and the citizens of Syria, who fight for survival amidst Russian airpower, Iranian ground troops, and war crimes committed by its own government. The costs of withdrawal are simply too huge; instead of just ISIS filling the vacuum, this time it will be Russia and Iran filling the void. The ensuing vortex could also pull Erdogan further into the authoritarian bloc, flipping Turkey geopolitically.
America has to send clear signals to the world, not conflicting messages from different officials and branches of government. Washington should not reward Erdogan who is committed to purchasing Russian military hardware. The moral hazard this creates will allow other potential NATO spoilers of the future to argue for multi-polarity in Europe, a direct threat to the transatlantic alliance and its values. The last thing the alliance needs is to wake up one day to an argument for S-400 systems in Hungary or elsewhere in Europe.
The current crisis is not just a Syria, Turkey, or Middle East issue, it is also about the future of the transatlantic alliance, and hence the future of liberal democracy, free markets, and open societies. Russia, China, and Iran do not differentiate between artificial regions when looking at the map. If liberal democratic values are to persist, America must do the same.