Bolton's Ankara visit can change Washington's image in Syria

Published 08.01.2019 02:04
Updated 08.01.2019 08:00

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton will visit Turkey today with the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, and the U.S. envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey. Late last week in a tweet, Bolton announced the purpose of the trip as "to discuss the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, how we will work with allies & partners to prevent the resurgence of [Daesh], stand fast with those who fought with us against [Daesh], & counter Iranian malign behavior in the region."

Following U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw American troops from Syria and heated debates in its aftermath about the strategy of the U.S. administration in regards to the Middle East after the withdrawal, this visit will be particularly important for the nature of the U.S. relations with its allies in the region. Considering the ups and downs in the relations between Ankara and Washington in the last several years, this visit can provide a lot of clarification for the future of bilateral relations.

Months ago, a similar visit by then National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster provided a similar impact for the relations in the midst of debates on the border protection forces and Turkey's Afrin operation. The potential positive impact of the visit would, of course, depend on several points.

First, as mentioned numerous times in this column, one of the most significant problems of U.S. foreign policy in recent years has been the lack of clarity. In the past month, we have seen this situation once again in regard to the withdrawal decision from Syria. Since then, there have been too many questions raised about the strategy of the U.S. in Syria and its policy priorities.

Other than Trump's decision to withdraw the U.S. forces, there is no timeline for the withdrawal. After meeting with Trump, reports about a briefing to journalists in regard to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's visit to the Middle East have revealed that U.S. State Department officials also reiterated this and expressed that there will be no timeline for the withdrawal.

Furthermore, a few weeks ago, some high-level U.S. officials, including Jeffrey, stated that the U.S. has three objectives in Syria, namely an enduring defeat of Daesh, to stop the regional expansion of Iran in Syria and the political process to resolve conflicts.

However, it is not clear which of these policies survived after Trump's decision. Last week, for instance, Trump made a statement on the U.S. objectives in Syria and described Syria as "death and sand." He also stated that Iran "can do what it wants" in Syria. This is thought to be a major departure from the earlier position of the administration on Iran.

Nevertheless, a few days after this statement, Pompeo contradicted the president on Iran when he stated that "the counter-Iran campaign continues. We'll do all of those things. We'll continue to achieve those outcomes. We will simply do it at a time when American forces have departed Syria."

This is very much in line with Bolton's statements before the announcement of the U.S. decision when he stated that, "We're not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias."

Hence, before meeting with their counterparts in the Middle East, the U.S. team needs to clarify these objectives. The capitals in the region may want to know who represents Trump's viewpoints and if this will be the U.S.' final decision in Syria.

Second, especially regarding Turkey, mutual trust has been at an all-time low between the two countries and one of the primary causes of this situation is the policy divergences in Syria. The failure to pursue commitments in the Syrian civil war and unfulfilled promises generated a major problem in bilateral relations.

The U.S.' decisions in Syria, including the infamous train-and-equip program and the redline statement, have not resulted in action, and this has created a credibility gap for the U.S.

In the next phase of the Syrian conflict, considering the existing security risks for Turkey due to the presence of terror groups and considering the unfulfilled promises, the Turkish government will focus on the actions of the U.S. instead of its rhetoric. Amid critical phases for the Syrian conflict, the war on terror and Turkey-U.S. relations, Washington's actions will be counted and followed closely. The U.S. team that will visit Ankara today should understand that Turkey will wait for the actions of the U.S. before committing to any arrangement in the future of Syria.

Third, considering public opinion in Turkey and its impact on Turkey-U.S. relations, the next few months will be extremely important. The U.S.' relations with the People's Protection Units (YPG) have irritated the Turkish public the most.

In particular, the cozy relations between YPG members and some U.S. officials have generated a major reaction toward the U.S. in the last few years. While some were expecting the end of this bad chemistry and a period of confidence building, Pompeo's statement about Turkey has generated another major blow. The continuation of the same type of statements will make it harder for Turkey and the U.S. to reset their relations and find common ground in coordinating the stabilization efforts in Syria. Unlike some other countries, public opinion plays a major role in shaping Turkey's foreign policy, and this role should be taken into consideration by the American team visiting Turkey.

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