When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan got on the phone with the White House last Friday, he wasn’t in much of a negotiating position. Facing economic recession, double-digit inflation, and strong opposition candidates in the run-up to local elections in March, the Turkish president might have expected some arm-twisting from his U.S. counterpart. Instead, Erdogan on Wednesday received two huge gifts from Donald Trump — gifts that undermine America’s efforts to work with Syrian partners and rebuff Russian influence.
The first gift is the announcement of U.S. withdrawal from Syria. According to The Wall Street Journal, Pentagon “has an order to move troops out of Syria as quickly as possible.” Reuters quoteda U.S. official saying that Washington aims to “withdraw troops within 60 to 100 days” and the State Department “was evacuating all its personnel in Syria within 24 hours.”
Ankara has been threatening military operations against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a key component of the Syrian Democratic Forces, America’s Syrian partner in the fight against the Islamic State. The U.S. has troops stationed in the territory, and so far has refrained from giving Erdogan a green light for a cross-border operation.
The second gift is the approval for the sale of Patriot missiles to Ankara. Instead of cancelling the order for Russian-made S-400 air defense system, Turkish officials said that they intend to buy both. Yet the S-400 is not only incompatible with NATO systems, but Turkey’s use of it alongside the F-35 would compromise the joint strike fighter’s stealth capabilities. Erdogan understands the technicalities, but this matter is as much about his personal protection as it is about his anti-Westernism, manifested repeatedly in his threats to the United States.