Trump threatens to ‘devastate Turkey economically,’ as US mediates with Kurds

Trump’s language was unexpected, dramatic, and ominous—for Ankara at least.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – “Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria,” President Donald Trump tweeted on Sunday evening. “Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit the Kurds.” 

Trump’s language was unexpected, dramatic, and ominous—for Ankara at least.

But the tweet concluded in a contrary fashion, “create 20 mile safe zone . . .” That is a 20-mile buffer zone in Syria, along the Turkish border, as a concession to Ankara.  And a second tweet followed in the same vein, “Likewise, do not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey.”

So despite the strong warning to Turkey, Trump’s two tweets, in fact, offer something to both sides. They reflect ongoing US diplomatic efforts to reach an understanding between Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been America’s main partner in fighting the Islamic State in Syria.

The SDF is led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG.) Ankara considers it the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan People’s Party (PKK) and a terrorist organization. The US regards the YPG as a loyal ally, and the negotiations are, not unexpectedly, difficult.

Turkey had earlier asked for a 25-mile buffer south of the Syrian border, but that has apparently been reduced to 20 miles. Syrian organizations have already protested that such a zone would be tantamount to ethnic cleansing, but the US may have other ideas in mind.

An informed Washington source, describing the negotiations, told Kurdistan 24, “We’ve given Turkey a buffer zone.” But “it is to be the Turkish army, no militias,” and it “is not to go into the towns.”

“There are also several thousand Syrian Kurdish fighters (Rojava Peshmerga), trained in Iraqi Kurdistan” he continued. They “are to be included’ in the forces that maintain stability in Syria, as the US departs.

The number of Arabs is to be increased, and other Kurdish parties must be allowed to operate freely, he concluded.

The YPG’s illiberal approach to governance is, indeed, a problem. Some two months ago, the YPG’s political wing, the Democratic Unionist Party (PYD), released from prison a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria. Masoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), thanked the PYD, but he also called for the release of all Kurdish political prisoners, noting that the appropriate place for such fighters and activists “is meant to be in the prisons of enemies, not in a prison of a Kurdish party.”

The US-mediated talks between Ankara and the SDF began in earnest with the visit to Turkey last Tuesday by Amb. John Bolton, White House National Security Adviser.

In an interview broadcast on Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained that Bolton’s discussions in Ankara had been “very productive,” despite reports to the contrary. Bolton was joined there by Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Amb. James Jeffrey, US Special Representative for Syria Engagement.

After Bolton left, Dunford and Jeffrey remained in Ankara for further talks. Jeffrey then went on to Syria, where he held discussions with the YPG leadership. On Saturday, he joined Pompeo in the United Arab Emirates, where Pompeo was in the middle of a tour of nine Middle East countries.

Pompeo said that Jeffrey “is fully engaged with the Turks as well as with the SDF in Syria to make sure” that the Kurds in Syria are protected after the US leaves and that “terrorists aren’t attacking Turkey from Syria.”

Paul Davis, a former Pentagon analyst and currently a Senior Fellow at Soran University, suggested to Kurdistan 24 that it was impossible to know why Trump had tweeted his remarks about Turkey on Sunday evening.

“Maybe, he just felt like it,” Davis said, “perhaps, to remind people where he stood.” But it was “equally plausible,” Davis continued, that Trump had “a specific goal” in mind.

Some Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have suggested that Bolton and other US officials are not accurately representing Trump’s position.

But, maybe, Davis proposed, “The tweets were Trump’s way of saying that those officials really do speak for him and the Turks need to listen.”

Editing by Nadia Riva