Erdogan hesitant to attack Syrian Kurdistan after Trump withdrawal announcement

But pro-government press was in a celebratory mood, presenting the American concession as an Erdogan victory against the US.
author_image Rawa Barwari

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) - The jarringly unexpected announcement by United States President Donald Trump this week that he would order all US troops out of Syria caught many friends and foes around the world off guard. In the Turkish capital of Ankara, it appears to have even caused surprise and confusion for the leader who had been pushing for the American withdrawal in the first place.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday announced that he had put his plans of staging an invasion of Syrian Kurdistan to clear US-allied Kurdish fighters on hold for the time being to wait and see how any power vacuum left by an American withdrawal might play out in the complex Syrian theater of war.

"The phone call I had with Mr. Trump, the talks on our diplomatic and security, as well as statements from the American side led us to wait for a while," Erdogan said in remarks that came only days after his initially fierce threats of an imminent assault on the US-armed, Kurdish-led forces fighting the Islamic State (IS).

"But of course, this waiting process is not indefinite," he added as he cautiously expressed his pleasure at the idea of a US withdrawal from vast territories liberated from IS, an idea strongly opposed by the Pentagon and US political establishment, 

The Turkish President's walk-back from the planned invasion attested to a new predicament in which the NATO-allied Ankara found itself; between its clear desire to destroy the de facto Syrian Kurdish autonomy along its southern border and exactly what Turkish activity that the two dominant powers-to-be in Syria  – Russia and Iran  –  would agree to as they craft their own strategies to fill a US absence.

During a speech in Istanbul, Erdogan relayed parts of his Dec. 14 phone call with Trump that is being reported as having triggered the decision, despite stern advice to the contrary by top American military and diplomatic figures.

"Mr. Trump asked us if would clear ISIS. I said, 'Yes, we have done before and will do it again later. You just help us logistically.' Now have [Americans] started pulling out? They have," Erdogan continued, bragging at having convinced the US president.

"We have our troops and Free Syrian Army which can clear all terrorist groups, YPG and ISIS," Erdogan claimed to have told Trump.

The Kurdish YPG, or People's Protection Units, makes up the bulk of the anti-IS forces the US has relied on for the past four years, forging deep military ties in the meantime.

According to an Associated Press report citing Turkish and American officials, Trump's abrupt capitulation "shocked" even Erdogan.

Only then, the Turkish leader cautioned Trump against a hasty withdrawal, the AP wired.

In the wake of such developments, pro-government and anti-Western Turkish newspapers ran headlines celebrating the move as "Erdogan's victory" against the US.

"The US has been buried in this map," read a headline on Friday in Aydinlik, a Turkish nationalist daily with an anti-NATO agenda, over a map of the Middle East with a Greater Kurdistan.

"Do not hit us, we are retreating," another paper, Ortadogu, wrote on its first page showing pictures of Erdogan and Trump speaking on the phone.

"Turks are not bluffing, let us pull out," wrote Aksam, a media outlet that has close links to Erdogan's business circle, featuring a photograph of Trump neatly placed under another story showing Erdogan warmly shaking hands with the visiting president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. 

Editing by John J. Catherine