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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 17 February 2019

Donald Trump is willing to play 'hardball' with Ankara over Syrian Kurds

Trump and Erdogan held another phone call on Monday to discuss the Syria standoff

This combination of file pictures shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan  deliverling a speech and US President Donald Trump during a joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. AFP
This combination of file pictures shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan  deliverling a speech and US President Donald Trump during a joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. AFP

In their third phone call to discuss the Syria situation and impending plans for US withdrawal, US president Donald Trump discussed with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday a framework that would protect Syrian Kurds while preserving Turkey’s security.

The White House said on Monday that Mr Trump and Mr Erdogan “discussed several bilateral issues, including the ongoing cooperation in Syria.”

“The President expressed the desire to work together to address Turkey’s security concerns in northeast Syria while stressing the importance to the United States that Turkey does not mistreat the Kurds and other Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with whom we have fought to defeat ISIS”, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.

The Turkish read-out said the two leaders discussed the idea of a safe zone to secure Turkey’s border and that Mr Trump said it could go as far as 20 miles into Syria.

The White House also said that US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff General Joseph Dunford will arrive in Turkey on Tuesday to continue his consultations from last week with senior Turkish defense officials.

The third Erdogan-Trump call since December 14 followed a threat by the US president on Sunday to devastate Turkey economically if it attacks America’s Kurdish partners.

The overnight tweet was a stark change in tone from three weeks ago when the White House hailed the US-Turkish strategic partnership and said that Mr Trump is open to a potential visit to Turkey in 2019.

The comments by the US president are the latest in a series of American diplomatic blunders that have drawn the ire of Turkish officials and further undermined already-strained relations between the two Nato allies.

More than anything, by threatening economic sanctions on Turkey, Mr Trump is signalling that he is willing to play hardball with Mr Erdogan in an attempt to extract concessions and protect US allies in Syria, according to experts.

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The shift on Sunday follows a gradual walk-back by Mr Trump and his administration over an exit from Syria.

What was at first portrayed as an imminent Syria withdrawal is now being cast by members of Mr Trump’s administration as a long drawn-out process that will hinge on the defeat of ISIS and securing guarantees by Ankara that it will not attack America’s Kurdish partners in Syria’s northeast.

Ankara, however, has resisted the new conditions, which Mr Erdogan has described as a "grave mistake."

Sunday’s threat is similar to another one Mr Trump made and executed last summer after Turkey arrested US pastor Andrew Brunson on terrorism charges related to the failed 2016 military coup.

Mr Brunson was released in October 2018 after spending two years in jail mainly because the US vowed to lift crippling sanctions on two Turkish ministers and increased tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium which its imposed on Ankara in the summer of that year amid growing frustrations over his case.

“Mr Trump has proven that he is willing to play hardball with Mr Erdogan,” Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The National, referring to the Brunson case.

He argued that Mr Trump knows that the Turkish economy is heading to a recession in 2019 and that Mr Erdogan will be in need of a massive International Monetary Fund bailout following March’s local elections.

In that context, Mr Trump “assumes that the incentives and disincentives he has at his disposal will discourage Mr Erdogan from taking unilateral action [against Syrian Kurdish militants] that could jeopardize Washington’s Syrian Kurdish partners” Mr Erdemir said.

While Mr Trump could dial up tariffs on Turkey or use unilateral sanctions again, the move could backfire, said Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The US can impose sanctions on Turkey and add tariffs like it did this summer…Mr Trump’s bluster is enough to rattle Turkish markets” Mr Cook said.

Still, he warned that such sanctions would have real consequences for Turkey and Europe, and could likely encourage Ankara to take action against the Kurds.

“Mr Brunson was a hostage; the Kurds in Syria represent an existential problem [for Turkey]” Mr Cook told The National, highlighting an important distinction between the two cases.

Mr Trump's threat could also be a message to his own domestic audience.

UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash weighed in on the Syria debate on Monday, stressing the role of Syria's Kurds in defeating ISIS and that "Arab interest requires addressing the role of the Kurdish component within a political framework and while preserving Syrian territorial integrity."

Nicholas Heras of the Center for New American Security told The National that the US President “is trying to signal to his domestic critics that the truth of the matter is that he is in control over Syria policy and that he understands the stakes that are raised by his decisions.”

Threatening the Turkish economy is “his ace in the hole” said Mr Heras, “at a time where Mr Erdogan is trying to hold onto power.”

The threat is also a message to members of Mr Trump’s own party who accuse him of being weak on Turkey and taking cues from Ankara over the situation in Syria. Mr Trump announced his decision to leave Syria only five days after his call with Mr Erdogan on December 14, leading many to suggest that the Turkish president was the main force driving the decision.

By shifting his rhetoric now, Mr Trump “a self-styled master negotiator, is telling the Turkish President, and the Republican audience, that he is calling the bluff” Mr Heras said.

Updated: January 14, 2019 11:38 PM

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