Did Erdogan Get More Than He Bargained For?
Syria is quickly turning into US President Donald Trump's most significant foreign policy blunder to date. It's looking like it might be for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, too.
On Monday, the Trump administration announced a fresh wave of sanctions on Turkey, in a bid to get Erdogan to halt his invasion of Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria. Yes, you may recall, that's the same invasion that the US green-lit last week by withdrawing American troops from the area.
The Kurds, meanwhile, have struck up an alliance of necessity with Russian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian forces are moving in, and many ISIS prisoners that were being guarded by the Kurds have reportedly escaped.
There are, of course, reasonable arguments for extricating American troops from Middle East conflicts, but the way this went down has been pretty close to a disaster. So can Trump fix it? And if not, will he pay a price?
Sanctions aren't likely to do much good. Sanctions are an unreliable tool in the best of times. But Erdogan is particularly unlikely to back down on this. Crushing Kurdish militants is a core national security interest that enjoys broad support among the Turkish population. Erdogan may even be strengthened at home if he can spin his Syrian invasion, and the resulting sanctions, as an act of sovereign defiance against a fickle and unfriendly US. Even if Turkey did withdraw, it's hard to see the Kurds (or their new Russian pals) going back to the way things were.
Will Trump pay a domestic price? He may have thought pulling a few dozen US troops out of a foreign war zone would be an easy win with voters. Trump has taken seemingly bigger geopolitical gambles with North Korea and Iran in a bid to rewrite the world's nuclear future—and is used to having time to course correct as necessary. But Syria is a quagmire, full of adversaries willing to pounce on any US misstep. Now the mess has escalated quickly, playing on an endless loop on cable television. If this turns into a foreign policy own-goal that reinvigorates ISIS, American voters could punish him at the polls next November.
Trump wasn't the only one who miscalculated. Erdogan knew Trump was liable to change his mind under mounting political pressure back in the US. The Turkish leader tried to tie his hands by launching the strike quickly, but Trump changed his mind anyway; now Turkey will catch US blame for whatever happens with ISIS as well as being squeezed by US sanctions. Factor in that the Kurds now have powerful allies in Russia who are much more committed to the outcome in Syria than the US ever was, and Erdogan may well be looking at a protracted fight that's going to cost Turkish lives and liras. Erdogan got what he wanted out of Trump, but he may well rue the day he did.