President Trump’s decision to hand security matters to Turkey finally grants a prime regional security role to Turkey 70 years late, but ‘better late than never’
“… the British Ambassador’s private secretary asked urgently that his chief might see the Secretary of State to deliver ‘a blue piece of paper,’ the trade name for a formal and important message from His Majesty’s Government…. Henderson shortly received not one but two documents. They were shockers. British aid to Greece and Turkey would end in six weeks…. The British could no longer be of substantial help in either. His Majesty’s Government devoutly hoped that we could assume the burden in both Greece and Turkey.”
— Former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson, recounting the events of 21 February 1947, in his memoir “Present at the Creation”
“You know what? It’s yours. I’m leaving.”
— US President Trump handing responsibility for security in northeastern Syria to Turkey, 14 December 2018
US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from Syria was greeted, in the US, by full-spectrum political outrage. From hard-right Republican hawks lamenting any sort of U.S. retreat to liberal centrists and leftists wringing their hands over the fate of America’s “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) partners, condemnation was loud and indignant.
The New York Times, a staunch PKK/PYD supporter (the PKK is a violent militant organization designated “terrorist” by US state institutions) ran a serious of alarmist editorials and articles bewailing the fate of Syria and the SDF. This is despite the fact that the SDF is nothing but a grotesque camouflage for the PKK’s Syrian branch that fools no one but the US public.
Typical was David Halbfinger’s 20 December article, titled “American Withdrawal from Syria Shakes up the Middle East,” in which the author claims that Trump’s decision “abruptly scrambled the geopolitics of the Middle East.” Halbfinger is obviously a recent arrival to the region. No one over here, other than the PKK, feels any sort of “shaking.” The real actors in Syria — Russia, Iran, and Turkey — have been negotiating over the fate of the country for the past two years while the US trucked in weapons for the PKK’s canton in northeast Syria.
Actually, since President Obama dropped the ball in 2012-2013 and allowed Russia to assert dominance in Syria, the US has had little-to-no real influence over events there. Despite the usual platitudes about human rights and the occasional Tomahawk strike for domestic US consumption, the infamous “red-lines-that-weren’t” illustrated America’s lack of both will and ability to push the Syrian conflict into a different trajectory.
Instead, the US administrations went for image and media manipulation that convinced only the US audience that things were going their way. Few in Turkey’s region have been deceived by these efforts, despite Ben Rhodes’s (former foreign policy advisor to President Obama) declaration to the New York Times Magazine’s David Samuels  that all a US administration had to do on foreign issues was tell media organizations what to publish. “They literally know nothing,” claimed Rhodes, so any US administration only needed to propagate the information that it wanted to be known, and everyone else would simply swallow the story. In the end, the only American accomplishment on Syria was intense, overwhelming self-deception; all of the brouhahas about Trump’s decision stems from that delusion and from efforts to conceal impotence with displays of misguided righteousness. In Turkey, as a result, President Trump’s decision elicited only grim amusement from some and outright schadenfreude from others.
For now, the most important issue is whether US withdrawal from northeast Syria will leave a power vacuum for the Syrian regime to fill through cooperation with the PKK/PYD/YPG. No one should feign surprise at that suggestion because collaboration with Damascus is exactly what the PKK/PYD/YPG has done in the past any time it saw the necessity. To prevent that eventuality, Turkey and the US are working to coordinate the changeover.
US official statements have also indicated a maximum of three months for complete withdrawal. This means that the US disengagement from Syria will need close observation for several months. Another issue vitally important to Turkey is the collection of weaponry the US provided to the PKK/PYD/YPG. Despite heavy — and justified — scepticism, the US has repeatedly claimed that those weapons will be retrieved. Frankly, I will only believe that American withdrawal and weapons collection have been satisfactorily concluded when Turkish intelligence and security officials affirm publicly that the US has, indeed, packed up and gone home, taking all of the weaponry supplied to the PKK with it.
– From the Middle East Command to Syria
What more clear-sighted observers should concentrate on is the historical meaning of this moment. The US has seen the Eastern Mediterranean as its “stomping grounds” since February 1947, when the British abruptly handed over the region’s security responsibilities. During the past 70 years, the US performed its own version of the famous British predilection for “muddling through,” stumbling from intervention to intervention and disaster to disaster in a region which it did not understand, but which the logic of geopolitical strategy demanded to remain under US control.
At least some of those disasters could have been averted if the original plan for a Middle East Command (MEC), which was strongly supported by President Harry Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, had been instituted. One of the justifications for Turkish (and Greek) admission to NATO was the proposed establishment of an Eastern Mediterranean security structure in which Turkey would have a primary role. Turkey’s regional knowledge could then have been applied more directly to the problems affecting the region.
The MEC, later renamed the Middle East Defense Organization (MEDO), was never realized because the Eisenhower Administration decided not to pursue the plan against strong regional resistance. In its place other arrangements, the ultimately doomed Baghdad Pact and its equally doomed successor, the Central Treaty Organization, were instituted.
Today, Turkey’s regional prestige has greatly increased along with its industrializing economy and enhanced military capacities. President Trump’s decision to hand security matters to Turkey, thus, finally grants a prime regional security role to Turkey 70 years late, but “better late than never,” as the American saying goes.
Turkey now has the ability to take on vital security burdens, as has been amply illustrated over the past two decades. Turkey’s participation in important cooperative security roles in places such as Afghanistan was an early indicator of Turkey’s developing capacity. But Turkey’s highly successful campaigns in northern Syria — Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch — have also proven that Turkey can independently plan and execute complex military operations in difficult terrain. If the Obama Administration, but more specifically President Obama, Ben Rhodes, and Secretary of State John Kerry had understood and trusted Turkey’s capacities six years ago, we could have avoided many of the negative developments that plagued Turkish-American relations over that time span. Exactly to what extent President Trump understands the issues involved in the Syrian conflict is unclear, but trusting Turkey on an important regional security matter is the right choice.
Consequently, a new era has arrived for Turkey, Turkish foreign policy, and Turkey’s role in the Eastern Mediterranean and in NATO. If Dean Acheson were alive today, I am sure he would have not just approved but would have wondered what took the U.S. and its NATO partners so long to do something so obviously logical.
And may it be auspicious not just for Turkey, but for the entire region.