Trump changes Syrian war, Kurds feel betrayed

Donald Trump surprised many people and countries with his sudden decision to withdraw US troops from Syria. In protest US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, a senior official coordinating the fight against Islamic State, resigned.

Trump’s decision has forced a sudden chaange of approach in the war by Turket, and Syrian Kurds, used by the US in the war but regarded as terrorists by Turkey, feel betrayed.

Reuters – Syrian surprise: How Trump’s phone call changed the war

President Donald Trump’s declaration in a phone call with Tayyip Erdogan that he was pulling U.S. troops from Syria has stunned Turkey and left it scrambling to respond to the changing battlefield on its southern border.

In the phone call two weeks ago, Trump had been expected to deliver a standard warning to the Turkish president over his plan to launch a crossborder attack targeting U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, U.S. officials say.

Instead, in the course of the conversation Trump reshaped U.S. policy in the Middle East, abandoning a quarter of Syrian territory and handing Ankara the job of finishing off Islamic State in Syria.

“Trump asked: ‘If we withdraw our soldiers, can you clean up ISIS?’”, a Turkish official told Reuters. He said Erdogan replied that Turkish forces were up to the task.

“Then you do it,” Trump told him abruptly. To his national security adviser John Bolton, also on the call, Trump said: “Start work for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.”

“I have to say it was an unexpected decision. The word ‘surprise’ is too weak to describe the situation,” said the official, one of five Turkish sources who spoke to Reuters about the Dec. 14 call between the two leaders.

Trump’s decision was also a shock in Washington, where senior administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, tried for days to change the president’s mind, U.S. officials said. When Trump made clear he would not back down, Mattis and a senior official coordinating the fight against Islamic State, Brett McGurk, both resigned.

For Turkey, Trump’s decision offers opportunity and risk.

Ankara has complained bitterly for years that the United States, a NATO ally, had chosen the Kurdish YPG militia as its main partner on the ground in Syria against Islamic State.

Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist group, inseparable from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey in which 40,000 people have been killed.

The U.S. withdrawal potentially frees Turkey’s military to push the YPG back from 500 km of border without risking a confrontation with American forces. It also removes a main cause of this year’s diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

But it also opens up an area of Syria far larger than anything Turkey had expected to fill, potentially pitting it against not just Kurdish forces but also the Damascus government – which is committed to regaining control of all of Syria – and its Russian and Iranian backers.

The YPG on Friday asked the Syrian government to take over the town of Manbij, which the Kurdish militia currently controls with U.S. support, to protect it from Turkish attack.

And if Turkish forces are to take on Islamic State in its last pocket of Syrian territory near the Iraqi border, they would first have to cross 250 km of territory controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.

“Erdogan got more than he bargained for,” said Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Program at the Washington Institute. “He had asked the U.S. to drop the YPG, but not withdraw from Syria”.

Alliances between groups fighting in Syria and countries involved in the war are complicated. Trump’s decision will force other countries to rethink their involvement, and will no doubt change the power struggles within and over Syria.

New York Times:  Syria’s Kurds, Feeling Betrayed by the U.S., Ask Assad Government for Protection

Feeling betrayed by the United States, its Kurdish allies in Syria asked the Syrian government on Friday to protect them from possible attack by Turkey.

The request surprised some American officials and could help open the way for the forces of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, backed by Russia and Iran, to start retaking the Kurdish-held part of the country near Turkey’s border.

That would be a big step toward Mr. Assad’s goal of reclaiming all of Syria, upended by almost eight years of war.

It was also the first sign that President Trump’s abrupt announcement last week that he was withdrawing American troops from Syria was not only shifting alliances in the conflict but directly benefiting Mr. Assad — a brutal autocrat once described by Mr. Trump as an “animal” responsible for chemical attacks and other atrocities.

American-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or Y.P.G., said the Syrian government should send troops to the city of Manbij, near the Turkish border.

The request amounted to a United States ally calling on an enemy of the United States to protect it from another American ally, Turkey.

The Kurdish militias are regarded by Turkey as dangerous, autonomy-minded insurgents. The United States regards them as valuable partners in helping rout Islamic State extremists from Syria — the original purpose of the American military deployment four years ago.

Although the American troops in Syria number only about 2,000, they have been a deterrent to an assault on the Kurdish militias by the Turks. The American presence also discouraged Mr. Assad’s forces from sweeping into the area even as they retook major areas elsewhere from anti-government fighters, often with the support of Russia and Iran.

Mr. Trump’s surprise announcement that he would pull American troops had raised fears of a scramble by competing forces to exploit the resulting vacuum.

It’s hard to know whether trump understands the implications of his sudden decision or not.

Groups controlling land in Syria:

 

The areas run by the Kurds in Syria have long stood apart in the conflict. They had hoped, with their American friends, to pioneer an alternative model for Syria’s future.

While none of the other powers fighting in Syria liked the situation, they mostly avoided attacking the area for fear of provoking the United States. Now, with that deterrent set to end, the future of the northeast is up in the air.

Those most likely to gain, analysts say, are the Syrian government and its allies, who want to bring the northeast back under the control of Damascus, both for the good of Mr. Assad and for their own interests.

It’s anyone’s guess what will happen in Syria now.

Trump adds Turkey to his trade wars

Donald Trump is widening his use of tariff threats and imposition of ad hoc tariffs. now targeting Turkey.

Given Trump’s record of withdrawing from or attempting to renegotiate trade agreements, and his spraying around of tariff threats and the ad hoc imposition of tariffs, it will be difficult for the world of trade to have any certainty in what the US may do in the future.

Businesses tend to hate this sort of uncertainty.

Trump is not just using trade weapons to try to drive more favourable deals for the US, he is using them as a punishment.

Washington Post: Trump takes aim at Turkey, announcing doubling of steel and aluminum tariffs in effort to punish country

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Friday against those who try to “bully” his country, as an announcement by President Trump imposing new tariffs on Turkey sent its currency into free fall.

“The language of threats and blackmail cannot be used against this nation,” Erdogan said in apparent response to Trump’s early-morning tweet saying he was doubling existing U.S. import levies on Turkish steel and aluminum. “Those who assume they can bring us to our knees through economic manipulations don’t know our nation at all,” he said, without directly mentioning Trump or the tariffs.

But the U.S. announcement quickly sent the value of the Turkish lira, already under severe strain, to a record low against the U.S. dollar. The currency crisis has fueled growing concerns in the international financial community and among investors about the health of the Turkish economy.

Trump’s willingness to ratchet up the financial pain on Turkey followed an unsuccessful effort this week to resolve the ongoing dispute between the two countries over Andrew Brunson, an American pastor held on charges that include espionage and trying to overthrow the government.

This seems to be just how trump does things. For Trump, sanctions substitute for foreign policy

For all the talk of “fire and fury” we once heard from President Trump, his administration’s most-frequently used weapons have been not have been explosive — they’ve been financial.

Since entering office, Trump has often used economic sanctions (and, concurrently, tariffs) in an attempt to bend other countries to his will. The administration feels, with some justification, that tough sanctions brought North Korea to the negotiating table.

Now Trump hopes that reinstating sanctions on Iran will also force that country to bargain with the United States and craft a new nuclear deal.

But the evidence that these sanctions are working as a foreign-policy tool isn’t convincing. And there is considerable concern that the Trump administration is overusing them while neglecting other important facets of foreign policy, like simple negotiations or coordination with allies.

The Washington Post’s Carol Morello recently outlined just how prevalent sanctions have become in the Trump era in a recent article. She found that during just one month — February 2018 — the United States had imposed sanctions not only on North Korea, but also groups or individuals in Colombia, Libya, Congo, Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Lebanon and more.

Though their use may be increasing, sanctions are not a new idea — they date back hundreds of years, if not further. Yet academic research has found that they often don’t work as intended. One study looked at 200 sanctions from between 1914 and 2008 and found only 13 that were clearly instrumental in achieving their creators’ aims.

The problem isn’t necessarily that they can’t inflict financial damage on a foe (given the power the United States holds over the global economy, that much is now a given). Instead, the issue is that this damage doesn’t always contribute to any logical foreign policy goal.

Using tariffs and sanctions is a heavy handed way of trying to get what Trump wants – there may be some successes in the short term, but damaging the finances of countries can have much wider effects (like for international investors and those who trade with the targeted country).

And Trump risks burning a lot of diplomatic bridges. Establishing a record of mistrust and unreliability may end up biting the United States on the bum.

 

Constitutional referendum in Turkey

In addition to Gezza’s Al Jazeera info on the referendum in Turkey:

Turks decide whether to back president’s plan for constitutional changes that are arguably the republic’s biggest since 1923

Erdoğan says the Yes vote is clear

The state-run Anadolu agency is reporting that President Erdoğan has called allied political leaders to congratulate them over the yes win, with the words: “May this result be fortunate for our nation.”

Reuters are reporting that Erdoğan told the prime minister and the leader of nationalist party that the results were “clear”, according to presidential sources.

Sources in Erdogan’s office said he told Prime Minister Binali Yildirim he was grateful to the nation for showing its will at the polls.

State-run Anadolu agency is reporting that 51.31% of Turks have voted Yes, with 98.2% of the ballot boxes opened.

But:

Turkish main opposition to demand recount of up to 60% of votes

The CHP, Turkey’s main opposition party, have announced they will be contesting the validity of 60% of the ballots, after unconfirmed reports of large numbers of votes without official stamps.

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BBC: Turkey referendum: Final campaigning ahead of landmark vote

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to replace the parliamentary system with an executive presidency.

Approval could see him stay in office until 2029.

Supporters say a “yes” vote would streamline and modernise the country; opponents fear the move would lead to increasingly authoritarian rule.

The referendum could bring about the biggest change to the governing system since the modern republic was founded almost a century ago.

It also takes place under a state of emergency which was imposed following a failed coup last July. A government crackdown since then has seen tens of thousands of people arrested.

What’s in the new constitution?

  • The president would be able to directly appoint top public officials, including ministers
  • He would also be able to assign one or several vice-presidents
  • The job of prime minister, currently held by Binali Yildirim, would be scrapped
  • The president would have power to intervene in the judiciary, which Mr Erdogan has accused of being influenced by Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based preacher he blames for the July 2016 coup against him
  • The president would decide whether or not impose a state of emergency
Grey line

Critics fear the change would put too much power in the president’s grasp, amounting to one-man rule, without the checks and balances of other presidential systems.

Sounds like Erdogan is seeking a mandate for a virtual dictatorship.

If he loses the vote is that going to stop him?

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More on Turkey versus the Netherlands and other European countries:  Turkey’s Erdogan warns Dutch will pay price for dispute

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned the Netherlands it will “pay the price” for harming ties after two of his ministers were barred.

The two ministers were blocked from addressing Turkish expatriates in Rotterdam on Saturday, with one of them escorted to the German border.

The Dutch government said such rallies would stoke tensions days before the Netherlands’ general election.

Several EU countries have been drawn into the row over the rallies:

  • Mr Cavusoglu called the Netherlands the “capital of fascism” after he was refused entry
  • Mr Erdogan accused Germany of “Nazi practices” after similar rallies were cancelled – words Chancellor Angela Merkel described as “unacceptable”
  • Denmark’s Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen postponed a planned meeting with Turkey’s prime minister, saying he is concerned that “democratic principles are under great pressure” in Turkey
  • Local French officials have allowed a Turkish rally in Metz, saying it does not pose a public order threat – while France’s foreign ministry has urged Turkey to avoid provocations.
  • Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said Mr Erdogan was not welcome to hold rallies as this could increase friction and hinder integration.

Mr Erdogan accused countries in the West of “Islamophobia” and demanded international organisations impose sanctions on the Netherlands.

“I have said that I had thought that Nazism was over, but that I was wrong. Nazism is alive in the West,” he said.

There are 5.5 million Turks living outside the country, with 1.4 million eligible voters in Germany alone – and the Yes campaign is keen to get them on side.

There has been a lot of Trukish immigration into Germany for decades.

So a number of rallies have been planned for countries with large numbers of expat voters, including Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.

It may be working in Erdogan’s favour. It’s certainly drawing attention to his campaign.

 

 

No delight in Turkish situation

The reaction by President Erdogan to last week’s failed coup attempt continues.

NZ Herald: Turkey seizes over 2,250 institutions in post-coup crackdown

Erdogan told France 24 on Saturday that Turkey has no choice but to impose stringent security measures, after the attempted coup that killed about 290 people and was put down by loyalist forces and protesters.

Some of the measures:

  • imposed a three-month state of emergency
  • seized more than 2,250 social, educational or health care institutions and facilities that it claims pose a threat to national security
  • detained or dismissed tens of thousands of people in the military, the judiciary, the education system and other institutions
  • mass dismissals of Turkish teachers
  • closure of hundreds of schools
  • patients at hospitals are being seized and will be transferred to state hospitals
  • the Turkish treasury and a state agency that regulates foundations have taken over more than 1,200 foundations and associations, about 1,000 private educational institutions and student dormitories, 35 health care institutions, 19 labor groups and 15 universities
  • those dismissed cannot work in the public sector and cannot work for private security firms
  • suspects can be detained without charge up to 30 days
  • all detainees’ communications with their lawyers can be monitored upon order of the public prosecutor’s office

From Al Jazeera: Turkey detains top Gulen aide after coup attempt

  • Turkish authorities detained on Saturday a key aide to Fethullah Gulen, the US-based Muslim cleric Turkey blames for a failed military coup attempt
  • Turkish authorities also detained a nephew of Gulen in connection to the coup attempt
  • tens of thousands of people have been detained, sacked or suspended in the wake of the failed coup, as the government vowed to “cleanse” the civl service from Gulen supporters
  • 37,500 civil servants and police officers have so far been suspended, including many from the education ministry
  • more than 10,000people detained (more than 7,000 of those are soldiers, including at least 120 generals)
  •  4,000 arrested
  • authorities would disband the elite presidential guard after detaining almost 300 of its members

Many Turks will be far from delighted.