US President Donald Trump’s decision on imposing sanctions on Turkey has rocked the ever-turbulent Middle East. Coming days after his decision to withdraw American forces from Syria who were deployed in support of the Kurds, the US President reacted angrily to the Turkish decision to invade northern Syria to create a buffer zone without the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkish President Recce Tayyip Erdogan sees SDF as a ‘terrorist group’ for its ties with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in his country. By going after the Syrian Kurds, he is trying to limit the influence of the Kurdish nationalists within Turkey.
President Trump’s sudden decision to pull out of Syria in the name of letting others ‘figure the situation out’ was perceived as a betrayal of the Kurds—both in Syria and Iraq—who were the main force behind the military defeat of the ISIS. While the ‘total defeat’ of the extremist Syria ISIS was announced in March 2019, there are fears that remnants of the extremists could regroup.
Capitalising on the vacuum along its border; last week, Turkey launched a massive military invasion into north-eastern Syria. President Erdogan seeks a ‘safe zone’ 30-kilometer deep into Syria for settling some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees who are currently in his country. While refugee resettlement appears noble, the Turkish action is controversial and evoked near-universal international disapproval and condemnation.
Responding quickly to the Turkish invasion, President Trump announced a series of sanctions against Turkey, a member of NATO. These measures include the re-imposition of a 50 percent tariff on Turkish steel imports and the freezing on a US$ 100 billion trade deal. The US Justice Department has announced a criminal investigation against Halkbank—a leading Turkish bank—on charges of money laundering and busting sanctions against Iran. The Trump Administration has sanctioned the Turkish Ministries of Defence, Energy and Interior and also froze their assets in the US and banned transactions with them.
President Trump has threatened that the US is prepared to “swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path.” The US Vice-President, who’s flying to the Middle East, warned that things could worsen “unless and until Turkey embraces an immediate ceasefire.” US lawmakers are also proposing a broad range of additional bipartisan sanctions. By invading Syria, President Erdogan has unified a host of stage bedfellows. The European Union, which is angry over President Trump’s Iran policy, would be relieved by the sanctions against Ankara, both to signal their support for the Kurds and to register their opposition to the invasion. The refugee crisis has been limiting Brussel’s ability as President Erdogan has threatened to open Turkey’s border and unleash a wave of refugees into EU countries. President Trump’s stringent measures would be manna from heaven for Syria and its strategic ally Russia who are unable to contain and repulse the Turkish military offensive. Already the SDF, which was against fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, has reached a tactical truce against the Turkish action.
For his part, President Erdogan has been defiant and has vowed to continue the military operations until his goals are achieved. He will not be able to climb down without some tactical gains or risks precipitating domestic opposition to his growing authoritarianism. His policies on Iran, Jerusalem or Golan Heights are controversial and least popular. However, President Trump enjoys a wider domestic and international support over Turkey. Mr. Erdogan has also angered and upset a host of Arab and non-Arab players in the region.
Thus, the domestic bipartisan support and regional isolation of Turkey should enable President Trump to expand and intensify his sanctions against Ankara in the coming weeks.
India is deeply concerned at the unilateral military offensive by Turkey in north-east Syria. New Delhi has said, Turkey’s actions can undermine stability in the region and the fight against terrorism. Its action also has the potential for causing great humanitarian and civilian distress.
Script: Prof. P R Kumaraswamy, Centre for West Asian Studies (CWAS), JNU