Turkey sanctions signal Trump's weakness as impeachment looms

Turkey sanctions signal Trump's weakness as impeachment looms
Comment: Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria and sanction Turkey has exposed a weak US president with little diplomatic credibility, writes Will Dizard.
6 min read
17 Oct, 2019
'Sanctions on Turkey hav not muted the enormous bipartisan outrage' writes Dizard [Getty]
The events of 14 October 2019 mark a sharp turning point in the history of US-Turkish relations, when the US president, backed up by Congress, vowed to sanction Turkish officials over Turkey's ongoing campaign in Syria. 

Trump had endorsed a fight between Turks and Kurds, just days before, as though he were betting on a boxing match. 

Meanwhile, thousands of lives are at stake, and the death toll in Syria increases. Decisions made by Turkish and American policymakers today could have consequences for both countries for decades to come. 

"The US is now implementing sanctions authorities related to Turkey's ongoing military offensive in northeast Syria, which is endangering and severely undermining the D-ISIS campaign," read a tweet sent Monday afternoon by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, referring to the campaign to defeat Islamic State (IS).

"This destabilizing operation by Turkey continues, and has now created a growing and disastrous humanitarian crisis."

The sanctions apply to the Turkish defence, energy and interior ministers, including the energy and defence ministries themselves, though the interior ministry is not facing sanctions. The US is also increasing tariffs on Turkish steel exports, a move that could send shockwaves through the Turkish economy. The lira lost value over the month of October, but the announcement of sanctions did not trigger a sell off. Further sanctions could.

A statement by the White House said the sanctions would stop once Turkey returns north, out of Syrian territory, and on Thursday, the US and Turkey reached an agreement to temporarily suspend military operations in Syria.

Turkey has called for a 30 kilometre deep slice of Syria, perhaps more than 120 kilometres long, where it hopes to resettle refugees currently living in Turkey.

The series of events over the last week shows that Trump is not in full control of his political party or his military

The series of events over the last week shows that Trump is not in full control of his political party or his military, which was left shocked by the decision to remove the 1,000 US troops in northeastern Syria.

Although Trump had signaled in December 2018 his desire to pull out, prompting Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis to quit in protest, the swiftness of the move caught Washington policymakers off guard. Mattis himself, now back in retirement, said Trump's decision will lead to a return of IS.

This is a clear break with US geopolitical strategy, or at least what's left over from Obama. The US role in Syria managed to create "facts on the ground" that would help it determine the terms of any potential political settlement to the Syrian conflict, with an eye to potentially containing Iran's regional ambitions.

While not actively encouraging Assad's downfall, having a proxy force annex part of Syria was meant to both contain both IS and provide a ballast against Damascus. In the meantime, the US presence meant Russia did not have a monopoly on imperialism in Syria.

Read more: Anti-Assad protests break out in eastern Syria following SDF-regime agreement

Trump has now backtracked on all of this, in the space of a week. Sanctions on Turkey have not muted the enormous bipartisan outrage over the move, and increased the chances of Congress impeaching him, convicting him in the Senate, and removing him from office. What seemed almost impossible a month ago became suddenly more likely after Trump's decision and meltdown.

Meanwhile, on the battlefield in Syria, the Turkish incursion into Syria upended the system of alliances that had defined the civil war there since the rise of IS in 2014.

Turkey considers the SDF to be a rebrand of the YPG, and the latter as the Syrian branch of the separatist PKK, recognized as a terrorist group by the US, EU and Turkey

Faced with the prospect of being overrun by the Turkish armed forces and its allies in the Syrian National Army, the SDF has chosen to fold itself into Assad's forces. Russian forces have also made gains, taking over a US base in the town of Manbij. Video emerged Tuesday of a Russian correspondent showing how the fortification still functions.

The alliance between these Syrian Kurdish fighters and Damascus, as well as the ongoing battles and humanitarian crisis the battle has spawned, creates a nearly unprecedented paradox in international relations.

The US is now sanctioning the leadership of a NATO country that is set to face attack by militants backed by Damascus, itself the client of two staunch US foes, Iran and Russia.

With this, Iran would now be able to more easily build a corridor of influence and weaponry from Tehran to Hizballah in Beirut. 

Trump does not understand the kind of fire he is playing with

Meanwhile, the US is responding to the crisis by lashing out at its own NATO ally, Turkey, which now has even more incentive to consider Moscow as its new geostrategic ally, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's adoption of the orphaned SDF.

None of this seems to worry Trump, who appears not to appreciate the gravity of the situation. Indeed, the pressures of impeachment seem to be reducing his reasoning ability.

"After defeating 100% of the ISIS Caliphate, I largely moved our troops out of Syria. Let Syria and Assad protect the Kurds and fight Turkey for their own land. I said to my Generals, why should we be fighting for Syria and Assad to protect the land of our enemy? Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!" Trump wrote on Twitter.

Trump may believe that he has defeated IS, but he hasn't. Trump talks about "my Generals", but it is clear that he is not in complete control over the decision making process in the United States. He seems easily outwitted and outflanked by his own staff and powerful members of his party, who now have less reason to fear political blowback from impeaching him.

Trump may believe that he has defeated IS, but he hasn't

Trump does not understand the kind of fire he is playing with. Three nuclear powers; the US, Russia and Israel, and two large conventional military powers; Iran and Turkey, are becoming even more deeply ensnared in a web of alliances and counter-alliances that threaten to increase the chances of a global nuclear conflict, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but some day.

Diplomacy of the most urgent sort is necessary to defuse conflicts between Ankara and Damascus, Washington and Moscow, and Tel Aviv and Tehran.

The US, having betrayed its allies in Ankara and even Ankara's enemies in Syria, offers little diplomatic credibility. No one in the region can be sure that a deal struck with Trump will not be reversed by pressure from Congress.

This scenario is thanks to the dangerous alchemy the US was meddling with in its support of the YPG against IS, unleashing a ghost from the Cold War to fight in the War on Terror. Today, the world is meeting monstrous dangers at the crossroads of these two forever wars. Trump, as ever, does not know which way to go. 

Wilson Dizard is a reporter and photojournalist covering politics, media and culture.

Follow him on Twitter: @willdizard

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.