President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria has reshuffled the cards in the war-torn country. Turkey intends to reshape northern Syria at the expense of Washington’s partners in the fight against the Islamic State. Syrian Kurds, feeling abandoned, are attempting to cut a deal with the Assad regime. Amid uncertainty and realignment, Russia has become the kingmaker. Can the U.S. reassure its allies and partners while containing Russian and Iranian ambitions in Syria and the Middle East?
This by-invitation-only conversation featured Anna Borschevskaya, Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute; Dr. Aykan Erdemir, Senior Fellow at FDD; Dion Nissenbaum, National Security Reporter for The Wall Street Journal; and Merve Tahiroglu, Research Analyst at FDD; and will be moderated by Amb. Eric Edelman, Senior Advisor at FDD.
Anna Borshchevskaya is a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on Russia’s policy toward the Middle East. She is also a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. She was previously with the Atlantic Council and the Peterson Institute for International Economics. A former analyst for a U.S. military contractor in Afghanistan, she has also served as communications director at the American Islamic Congress. Her analysis is published widely in publications such as Foreign Affairs, The Hill, The New Criterion, and the Middle East Quarterly. Until recently she conducted translation and analysis for the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office and its flagship publication, Operational Environment Watch, and wrote a foreign affairs column for Forbes. She is the author of the Washington Institute’s monograph Russia in the Middle East. She is a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University.
Amb. Eric Edelman retired as a career minister from the U.S. Foreign Service on May 1, 2009. He is a Senior Advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a member of its Advisory Board on Turkey. As the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy (August 2005 – January 2009) he oversaw strategy development as DoD’s senior policy official with global responsibility for bilateral defense relations, war plans, special operations forces, homeland defense, missile defense, nuclear weapons and arms control policies, counter-proliferation, counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, arms sales, and defense trade controls. He served as U.S. Ambassador to the Republics of Finland and Turkey in the Clinton and Bush Administraations and was principal deputy assistant to the vice president for national security affairs. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a visiting scholar at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, and a senior associate of the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.
Dr. Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish Parliament (2011-2015) who served in the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, EU Harmonization Committee, and the Ad Hoc Parliamentary Committee on the IT Sector and the Internet. As an outspoken defender of pluralism, minority rights, and religious freedoms in the Middle East, Dr. Erdemir has been at the forefront of the struggle against religious persecution, hate crimes, and hate speech in Turkey. He is a founding member of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, and a drafter of and signatory to the Oslo Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief (2014) as well as a signatory legislator to the London Declaration on Combating Antisemitism. In 2016, Dr. Erdemir was awarded the Stefanus Prize for Religious Freedom in recognition of his advocacy for minority rights and religious freedoms. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on Turkey. Dr. Erdemir is co-author of Antagonistic Tolerance: Competitive Sharing of Religious Sites and Spaces (Routledge).
Dion Nissenbaum is a national security reporter based in Washington for The Wall Street Journal. Previously, he was based in Istanbul, Turkey and Kabul, Afghanistan for the Journal. Before joining the paper, he served as a Middle East correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers and Knight Ridder Newspapers.
Merve Tahiroglu is a research analyst at FDD focusing on Turkey. She supports the work of FDD scholars with Turkish language research and analysis on Turkey-related matters. Her research focuses on Turkey’s foreign policy, domestic politics, and Ankara’s ties to Tehran. Her personal areas of interest include Turkey’s Syria policy and Islamic extremism in Turkey. She has published and/or co-authored pieces in various outlets such as Foreign Affairs, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Politico, The Huffington Post, and Foreign Policy, in addition to FDD’s Long War Journal. Born and raised in Istanbul, she earned her MA in History from Georgetown University and her BA in Political Science from Duke University.
Syria Reshuffled: Turkey, Russia, and the Kurds after the U.S. Withdrawal
A Conversation with Anna Borschevskaya, Dr. Aykan Erdemir, Dion Nissenbuam, and Merve Tahiroglu, moderated by Amb. Eric Edelman
ADESNIK: Good afternoon everyone and welcome to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. My name is David Adesnik, I’m the Director of Research here. I’m very much excited to hear today’s discussion on Syria, I think we have an incredible panel for you. Just very briefly a couple of words about FDD.
Of course, we are a non-partisan research institute, focused on foreign policy and national security. Syria of course has been, a strong interest of ours for a very long time. We view it both in the context of the terrible human tragedy happening there. As well as the way it fits into Iran’s plans for aggression in the region. To get a broader sense of FDD’s expertise and how it really stretches quite widely, I certainly recommend you look at our midterm assessment. It’s a collection of 21 essays on different aspects of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy both individual countries and themes such as, human rights and you can find that of course online at FDD.org.
Today’s moderator is Ambassador Eric Edelman. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him for quite a few years, a tremendous privilege to have him here. I think his experience of course, a really distinguished career with the State Department, a key post at the Defense Department and of course, being our envoy in Turkey makes him superbly equipped, to serve today.
And finally, all I really need to tell you is the importance of turning off your phones, other devices, Fitbits, iWatches, Samsung, every brand possible. If it makes noise, please turn it off. We, of course are very glad to have a number of networks filming this and live streaming, so it is very important that we reduce any of that excess noise and with that I turn it over to the Ambassador, to introduce the panel.
EDELMAN: David, thank you. It’s great to be here. It’s always great to be at FDD and today we’ll be talking about the tweet that was heard around the world. That President Trump announced in December, the US withdrawal from Syria. Which we now know, after yesterday was done without benefit of council from the commander of CENTCOM but it’s obviously led to a potential reshuffling of the deck as it were, given the various actors who are involved, Turkey, Russia, the Kurds, and others.
One of my colleagues has said, “It’s the Mos Eisley cantina of Global Politics, right now.” So, for all you Star Wars fans out there and we have assembled a terrific panel for you today, for you to discuss this. Let me introduce them to you briefly. On the far right, although that’s not a political designation, is my colleague Aykan Erdemir, who is a Senior fellow here at FDD, focused on Turkey. He’s a former Turkish Parliamentarian and also a scholar of Turkey and a great colleague.
Anna Borshchevskaya is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute where, she is one of probably the best students of Russian Policy in the Middle East. Merve Tahiroglu, also at FDD. Frequent partner in crime with me and co-author of various op-eds about, among other things Turkey’s hostage policy. And then, our colleague Dion Nissenbaum from The Wall Street Journal, whom we almost had to write about as a hostage but thank God, he’s not. So, he’s here with us today and has been based previously in both Istanbul and Kabul, but follows all of these issues.
So, welcome to all of you and Dion let me start with you. I want to start by having our panelists go over what the different stake holders have as their sort of opening bids if you will. So, what in fact is the US policy going forward? Are we just – we just had the State Department hosting a Conference of Countries involved in Syria. Secretary Pompeo spoke to them, President Trump spoke to them. We’ve had delegations in Ankara from the United States. We’ve had yet again another set of working groups charged with figuring out what the US policy vis a vis with Turkey is. We’ve had the visits of Secretary Pompeo and National Security Advisor Bolton to the region. And all of this has yielded a very, very clear US policy. So, could you unpack that for us?
NISSENBAUM: There is no clear US policy. I think Secretary Pompeo said something yesterday in an interview that I thought was interesting. He talked about shifting to fighting a decentralized jihad. So, this is a President who wants regional actors to be fighting the regional wars. So he wants Turkey, Israel, Iraq to be leading this fight, to stabilize the Middle East. More broadly, you’re looking at this Administration looking at fighting a decentralized jihad, other places in the world. As we know Africa is a hot spot, especially Libya. There’s other places we need to keep an eye on. For Syria specifically, this is a policy that’s still being developed. There isn’t a plan for the withdrawal yet.
The President said he wants to get out. It came about abruptly, as you said without consulting with CENTCOM or our allies on the ground. You have divisions within the US Administration between the White House, State Department, and the military, over what the withdrawal should look like. Whether we should stay there to protect the partners on the ground. The Syrian Democratic Forces are not. You have Turkey which is trying to essentially wait out the US and is negotiating these efforts and if things fall apart on the withdrawal, I think they fully expect the President to just move forward and then they can move forward with their agenda in North Eastern Turkey.
So, there isn’t a coherent plan for getting out of Syria and I think that’s what is of concern to a lot of people.
EDELMAN: Dion, let me just follow up with one further question on this. So, yesterday President Erdogan in speaking to AKP parliamentarians said, “You know I have great phone calls with President Trump,” he didn’t mention the Tweets threatening to destroy the Turkish economy but he said, “I have great, great conversations with President Trump but on lower levels, you know, all of the problem is really at lower levels.”
By the way, this was also a trope of President Erdogan’s previous administration, so it’s not totally new but what is that all about? Are Bolton and Pompeo trying to slow roll the President? I mean you talked about the divisions of bureaucratically inside the US Government but is there an effort to try and draw this out until we can get all our ducks in a row and is that sustainable?
NISSENBAUM: Again, these are things that are still being worked out and yes you do have people like Bolton and Pompeo that are still trying to sort of preserve an element of a counter-Iran strategy as part of this. We have this base in Southern Syria with a couple of hundred US forces that the US says on the record will be the last thing to go, and there’s no timeline for getting rid of this base which the US says kind of acts as a bulwark preventing Iran from ferrying weapons from Iran up into Lebanon.
So, if you look at what’s happening with that base in particular, yes, you see that there are people like Bolton that want to keep it. I’ve heard that they had gone to the President at some point and said, “Well, we want to keep this base,” and he said, “What part of all US forces withdrawing, don’t you understand?” But you still hear it coming up as a narrative. So yes, I do think that there’s still people who want to try and keep some US presence there but as we’ve seen, this is a President at the end of the day might just tweet out that we’re getting out at the end of the day anyway.
EDELMAN: We’ll come back to this because there’s a lot to be discussed here. Anna, I want to turn to the Russian dimension. Since the Russian, intervention in September of 2015, it’s been increasingly clear that even before the President Tweeted in December, that folks in the region are making their calculations based on Russia’s role more than ours, really. That they see Russia increasingly as the arbiter of Syria’s future.
So, before the President Tweeted out his comments in December, the Russians were gearing up with the regime to clear the last remnants of the opposition out of Italy which of course borders on Turkey. That Turks were very concerned about that and remain concerned about that because of the potential refugee flow which is not trivial considering Turkey already bears the burden of three and a half million Syrian refugees and said, “We’ll take care of it. Don’t you do it,” and then Putin said, “Okay, you have time to take care of it.”
Most recently when Erdogan was in Moscow talking with Putin. Putin was betraying a certain amount of impatience that Turkey is not taking care of it. It’s a question about whether Turkey is actually capable of taking care of it because its allies, at every fight, they seem to get into Idlib with Tahrir al-Sham, seem to be on the losing end. They don’t seem to be actually capable of clearing the area. Then of course you have, the other side of the problem that we’ve been talking about what happens with the US withdrawal out of the Manbij Region and further out of Eastern and North-Eastern Syria. Where does all this leave the Russians? Where are they? How are they likely to respond to all of this? Where are they likely to move their people if at all? How will they seek to take advantage of this and continue to be the arbiter?
BORSCHEVSKAYA: Sure, well first you’re absolutely right. What’s very important is that, for years now, way before the tweet, many in the region have come to perceive Russia as the arbiter in Syria and US disengagement from the region that began under the Obama Administration, bears a lot of responsibility for that. What’s interesting to me, what’s very important is how, if you recall how there was a brief shift in our policy earlier when we said, “We’re going to stay in Syria beyond simply combating ISIS,” how quickly the Kremlin reacted in a negative way. They clearly didn’t like it. The glee again that came out of the Kremlin after the tweet that we’re withdrawing, very quickly followed by concern that we’re not really leaving. And I think that’s very important for the Russians. They worry, I think that’s genuine, that we’re not really going to leave, especially since they’ve seen a lot of shifts in our policy that that makes sense.
But what the situation does is it leaves them again, as the ultimate arbiter and one of their priorities is keeping Assad in power. This situation again gives them the role to pursue it in the manner that they’re interested in. The word that came out of Kremlin and Russian officials several times has been political settlement. So, I think that what they’re looking for ultimately is some kind of a political settlement on their terms that keeps Assad in power. In fact, this past week there have been reports that Putin is planning to host a trilateral meeting in Sochi with Iran and Turkey, to discuss the future of Syria and I think that’s where they’re headed.
In terms of Idlib, I have been watching this very closely. It did seem – first of all, I agree with you there. There’s lots of questions to be asked about whether Turkey is really capable of doing what they said they were going to do, so it’s not surprising that there’s impatience coming from Putin. Ultimately I think what he wants is to solidify Assad’s victory, gain access to Syria’s resources, oil resources especially and that’s very important because again, with the withdrawal that leaves our allies, the SDF in a very difficult position. Also, things like phosphates, there have been signals coming out of the Kremlin about rebuilding Syria’s infrastructure, telecommunications, so they want to retain that control and that gives them more room to do that.
EDELMAN: Let me just follow up with Anna, with just one question on that. So it seems to me, and please disagree if you think I’m wrong but the Russians since before September 2015, they gave a lot of thought to how they were going to do this and clearly it was concerted with Iran. I mean Qasem Soleimani, almost as the ink was drying on the JCPOA was in Moscow, coordinating with the Russians and what seems to be clear was that there was a division of labor. And the crisis at the time was a crisis of man-power for the regime and the solution was that, Iran would through various Shia Militias including, IRGC Quds Force, provide the cannon fodder while Russia would provide the C4ISR. The Command Control Surveillance Reconnaissance and Airstrike if necessary.
The US withdrawal is going to create a vacuum, so who does Russia want to see fill that vacuum and break it if you could into what they say and what they really mean. Because on the one hand Lavrov has said, as you suggested, they want to see the regime fill that vacuum, when the Americans go out, not the Turks. But how do they – It’s not completely clear the regime really could fill that vacuum. So what do they really want to see happen in this area once we’re out?
BORSCHEVSKAYA: Well, first of all they want to ensure their own presence. I think that’s pretty clear with the fact that, I mean, this is a permanent Russian military presence for at least the next 49 years with Khmeimim in the tier two space. So access to the Mediterranean Coast, that’s a priority. I think you know, and it’s also hard to leave it, and we’re now back to Kremlinology when we have to sort of have to read between the lines of what Russian officials say. There’s little information.
But I think, look as you said there was a division of labor in Syria and that’s very important because Russia’s Syria strategy, for all their talk about being an arbiter or neutral, being neutral, being able to talk to everybody, Russia’s strategy was always predicated on a partnership with Iran and that’s not going to change. That leaves a lot of questions. For instance, what’s going to happen as tensions between Israel and Iran escalate? As tensions between Hezbollah and Israel escalate? I think the one thing the Russians don’t want to do is choose sides, definitively. I think they’re going to try to play everybody. That’s been their playbook because the moment you choose a side, then you lose that advantage. How will this ultimately play out? It depends on a lot of factors but that’s where we’re headed.
EDELMAN: Well, let’s turn to the Turkish side of this. I’m going to ask Aykan and Merve to fill in some blanks, because if you think what we’ve been talking about is complicated so far, it’s about to get even more complicated. Turkey within the next 60 days is going to be facing elections. It seems like there’s always an election in Turkey. But now we are going to have very important municipal elections in which right now, the ruling party is polling quite poorly and this obviously has gotten Erdogan pretty engaged. What’s the Turkish game plan here in advance of the election, Aykan?
ERDEMIR: There are two time horizons. One, as you said, is the short term, that’s until March 31st, when the local elections will be held and one, the long term which is beyond Erdogan. Let me begin with the short-term plans. So Erdogan is polling -7 compared to the last general elections. These elections really matter. There’s the economic downturn and if Erdogan manages to win these big cities once again which will be feeding his war chest, he no longer faces anymore elections for the next four years. This is kind of the election to end all elections so if he can pull this one off despite the economic crisis, it will be a great win for him. So what do you do when you have poor performance in your municipalities, 30% inflation in food and drugs? You need a rally around the flag effect and what better than an incursion into Syria because, if I switch from the short term to the long term, Erdogan knows that pounding, YPG, PKK is the winner across the political spectrum.
Not only caters to his own base and to his far right ally Devlet Bahceli’s MHP’s base but it also to the national sentiments across the political spectrum. So I would argue that Erdogan will look for an opportunity in the next two months, to carry out a small cross border stunt. And today one of the Ankara bureau chiefs had a scoop saying that he has overheard plans of an operation to relocate the Suleyman Shah Shrine. For those who haven’t been following the bizarre history of this founding Grandfather of Turks, his shrine is in Syrian territory, and it has been relocated a couple of times. The last one was in 2015 because there was Turkish Special Forces, 40 of them surrounded by ISIS and Turkey had an overnight incursion into Syria with the help of the YPG, with the assistance of the YPG and carried the shrine towards the Turkish border which is now located let’s say a hundred yards into the Syrian border but within Turkey’s security wall.
It’s a Syrian piece of territory which is inside Turkey’s Security Perimeter but in Kurdish control, North of Syria. So we might be looking into a stunt whereby Turkey moves this shrine further south, back where it used to be, which is right across Manbij, across the Euphrates so this would be the perfect rally round the flag effect. This of course is all the short term plan. The long term plan was, gradually, incrementally forcing US to offer concessions. First with Manbij, with working groups, then hopefully in the Eastern Bank of the Euphrates and I think the last thing Erdogan was expecting during that infamous phone call with Trump was, an immediate capitulation. He didn’t really expect the US to be –
EDELMAN: He probably didn’t want it.
ERDEMIR: He didn’t want it. He knows the negative repercussions of such a pullout, so at this point I think Erdogan is also trying to think through this beyond the elections. I think as of April 1st, if Erdogan survives these local elections, we might see a new Erdogan. First of all, no voter pressure I would argue. For the next four years no elections whatsoever, no referendum, no local elections, no general elections.
Second, he probably will no longer need the rally around the flag effect. He might even suffer the consequences of an economic crash. He could say, “You know what, let me experience it now. No more elections,” and then the voters have four years to forget about the consequences of a crash. And the big question has always been, is there any possibility of a return to a modus vivendi with Syrian Kurds? Can we talk about a return to Kurdish peace process back in Turkey? I’ll leave those big questions to the second round but certainly following April 1st, we might have a completely new Turkish game in town.
EDELMAN: Just two points to follow up on that with you, Aykan. One is his rhetoric in the last couple of days, weeks, has become much, it’s never terribly nuanced when it comes to the Kurdish question but any kind of distinction, YPG, PKK, HDP, it’s all just been obliterated, which is not insignificant considering the importance of the Turkish Kurdish population in the South East and the peace process you’re referring to. The other vulnerability that I think you were adverting to but might be good to talk about a little bit for the audience is, not only is he down compared to previous vote in the polls but in compared to the last municipal election, in which most of the big urban areas went the other way but he still held on to Ankara and Istanbul, Ankara for sure is up for grabs this time and maybe even Istanbul. I mean what happens if he were to lose in those two cities and is there anything about that that plays into these other issues you have been talking about?
ERDEMIR: In Ankara, Erdogan’s candidate is so far behind in polls, there is even rumors that they might change the candidate at the last second, it’s that bad. In Istanbul, I would argue Erdogan does not have the luxury of losing. In Ankara, he might. Despite rigging the ballots if he loses it at the end of the day, if it’s like a 10% lead, so big that he can’t rig it, he’ll live with it but in Istanbul there is no way he can let go. That’s his cash cow and that’s why he had the former Prime Minister, his right hand man, running for office as the next mayor of Istanbul.
Which means since the threat comes not only from the center left pro-secular CHB, but it’s an alliance with a credible Nationalist Party, e-Party, Erdogan needs the rally around the flag effect more than ever. He needs the Nationalist Credentials more than ever and he also needs the anti-Kurdish sentiment more than ever. Because he knows that when it comes to – let me bring in some nuance to the anti-Kurdish sentiment. Erdogan always says, “We’re not against Kurds. We’re against the YPG, PKK, and the HDP,” but we know that across the Turkish political spectrum, although Turks are not against Kurds. There’s not a blanket, enmity against Kurds. It’s almost across the spectrum, sentiment against Kurdish or autonomy or self-rule no matter where it is. It’s the same with the KRG, it’s the same with the Syrian Kurds, it’s the same with Turkey’s Kurds or Iranian Kurds.
Turks across the board happen to be against Kurdish self-ruling in any form so Erdogan will tap into that sentiment. He knows he can catch e-Party voters, he can catch some of the National Siege P-voters, he can solidify his own base and certainly he needs to deliver this to the MHP. And so we might see until April 1st, a very hard line rhetoric about Kurds in general and possibly coupled with some cross-border military stunts for the media to broadcast live.
EDELMAN: And if I read your comments correctly, likely some of the same kinds of election-day tactics in Istanbul that we saw in –
EDELMAN: – in Ankara last time around.
EDELMAN: Merve let me talk to you, I think it’s a perfect segue to talk about where Turkey and the YPG, PKK, nexus lie. To go back to where we started with Dion from the US point of view, particularly the US military who has relied almost exclusively on the SDF in the Syrian portion of the campaign to reduce the ISIS caliphate. There’s a lot of concern about preserving those allies who fought with us and the SDF. While it has some Arab Tribal elements in it, it is largely built around the YPG Militia. That’s obviously, as Aykan was just explaining, almost an anathema to, certainly to the Turkish Military and the Turkish government. Although, the Turkish Military seems not very enthusiastic about a big military operation in Syria as opposed to another effort to repatriate the remains of Suleyman Shah’s as Aykan was describing.
So, what do you think the realistic objectives are for Turkey, with regard to the YPG when the US is out?
TAHIROGLU: Yeah. I know it looks a little bit complicated but I think actually Turkey’s view, and this is the government and the military alike towards Syrian Kurds, has been pretty consistent from the beginning, and I think there’s some pretty straight forward objectives. The main question is, as Aykan mentioned, this idea of autonomy for the Kurds across Turkey’s boarder, because that is really what they consider to be a major national security threat. That’s what the Turkish state really thinks and has thought this entire time, and that hasn’t really changed. And since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, when we’ve seen the Syrian Kurds under the PYD’s umbrella, which has ties to and is sympathetic to the PKK, that was all the more concerning for Turkey’s side.
And we’ve seen Turkey’s policies towards various opposition groups in Syria fighting in the North, consistently favor the groups that were also attacking the PYD and regions that were supported by the PYD. So since the PYD under the umbrella of the SDF, also before on their own declared – established this kind of local administration and this rule over these Kurdish Cantons, but also some Arab majority Cantons, Turkey’s policy has been to get rid of that, right? Because they don’t want to see any kind of Kurdish autonomous zone in Syria but also they don’t want to see one that is ruled by the PYD, which could become a safe haven for the PKK or in any way support the PKK.
This has been the objective I think since 2012, really, which is when the PYD first declared its own autonomy and has been under the SDF as well and now I think what that practically means is the SDF controls a bunch of North Eastern Syria at this point. Some of those provinces are Kurdish dominated, some of those are Arab dominated, and the SDF with various components of course, has control over all of those areas. I think what Turkey wants is to see all of, all YPG and PYD presence cleared off of those lands and that includes the Kurdish lands.
Realistically, I think in any kind of political settlement, it’s hard to see the PYD ruling over places like Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor or Tel Abyad.
EDELMAN: With an Arab Majority.
TAHIROGLU: Yeah. Even the demographic composition must have given what the PYD really wants, right? I don’t think it’s realistic to see that they would be ruling over those areas anyway. But then that still leaves the question to the two remaining Kurdish cantons which is Kobani and Cizre and see what going to happen to them. This is the negotiations that are happening between Turkey and Russia and the US. YPG is similarly locked in these intense negotiations with Russia and the US because everyone’s trying to maximize their objectives and their gains in this picture. But I think with the US policy as Dion explained, being kind of hard to understand and hard to follow and pretty inconsistent I would say. The prospect of the US leaving, it’s really hard to see how SDF itself is going to be intact and where would that leave the YPG and where does that leave the PYD. So it makes complete sense that the Kurds are now looking to make a deal with Assad whereby they can have some sort of political autonomy in these areas under a Syrian Constitution and Turkey, too.
EDELMAN: I mean, Merve, doesn’t that really, when you think about that and what really only your fellow panelists say, and Turkey is really quite isolated here, and the YPG has obviously relations with us. They’ve previously had pretty decent relations with Moscow. There’s not any enmity and in fact, Moscow’s had strong relations with Kurdish populations in Iraq and Syria for many, many years going back to Yevgeny Primakov’s time. The Regime has had pretty good relations with the elected YPG, I mean there was not any enmity. One of the problems we had was getting the SDF to want to do anything against the Regime. They could get them to fight with ISIS but they had no real interest in fighting the Regime itself so the Regime is okay with them.
And Turkey’s proxies, as we’ve said earlier, have been pretty feckless in their efforts in Idlib but there’s no reason to believe that the proxies would do better in the Northeast. So where does that leave the Turks? I mean is their only option a very large-scale occupation? I mean if they want to accomplish the aims you said, the kind of cleansing the area of the PYD umbrella as you put it and the local Kurdish militias with others there, what option do they have? I mean if it’s not the Regime coming in, as Lavrov suggested, and the question is by the way, is whether or not the Regime could actually do this very effectively either, is their only option a very large-scale Turkish occupation which I don’t think the military would be that keen to do? Because this would be much bigger than Jarablus or any of the other –
TAHIROGLU: Previous operations.
EDELMAN: – that they’ve undertaken.
TAHIROGLU: Yeah, I actually don’t think it’s the only option. I don’t even see it as an option that they really want to take. Part of the reasons that I can mention would be the election coming up and also the kind of lack of resources that Turkey has to carry on such an operation. I think, it’s still a big question mark as to what’s going to happen in any kind of final settlement to the current Turkish controlled zones. Right? We have Jarablus and Afrin and I think the status of those in any kind of settlement is at the end of the day, is still a big question because in part we see a lot of consistent statements coming from the Turkish government, saying they really don’t want to stay there and transitionists.
But, at the same time, the local administration now of these provinces are very much tied to other provinces in Turkey, and to the Turkish Military as well. And there’s also tons of reports coming out of places like Afrin but also Jarablus of kind of a Turkification methods or the Arabization methods that they say Turkey, not only bringing in some troops but also creating these hospitals and schools with Turkish language, changing the names, especially in Afrin. Changing the names of streets and even in some cases they’re reports from the Human Rights Watch showing looting and seizing property and kind of doing this demographic change.
I don’t know what that means, that kind of Turkification because, I can’t see how that could possibly be in Turkey’s interest to have to isolate the cantons in Syria that are under pseudo-Turkish control. But I think when it comes to this YPG question, and this is why I think Turkey has more options actually because I think this is an opportunity. I’m not sure that the negotiations between the YPG and the Assad Regime are going that well. So yes, the Regime and the SDF and the PYD have had a kind of cordial relationship from the very beginning but I think this was just smart policy on the part of the Kurds. To know that in an eventual settlement, I might have to live with this guy, and we have been living with this guy all this time, so we know how to behave when it comes to this and kind of hedge the bets. But Assad is not really promising the PYD the kind of political autonomy that it wants.
So, I see this as a bit of an opportunity because I still think that before the US leaves, it’s actually going to – there is a way, there is room for negotiation between the US, Turkey, and the PYD to come to some sort of non-aggression agreement against one another. And if both Turkey and the Kurds pursue this, I think it’ll strengthen both of their hands in their negotiations with Assad and Russia as well. So I think they ought to capitalize on this opportunity and really try to –
EDELMAN: Although, given what Aykan said, that doesn’t seem likely before April 1st.
TAHIROGLU: Yeah, I would agree with that.
EDELMAN: Well, you basically put the question to us of, given this kind of background the four of you have sketched out, if US policy is contradictory and inconsistent and hard to discern that opens the floor up to a discussion of what it should be as opposed to what it is.
Anna, let me start with you. Presumably if you believe that it’s not in the US interest to have Russia be the dominant player here, not the least because of, to go back to that point Dion made at the outset. Not least because it leaves some of our other allies in the region at Russia’s mercy as it were, including Israel. I mean, if the Russians are the ones who control this and we’ve seen Israel already taking steps to help itself deal with the Iranian problem, along with the series of airstrikes that they’ve carried out around Damascus in the airport area. What ought the US be thinking about in terms of its policy vis a vis what Russia is doing in Syria?
BORSCHEVSKAYA: Sure. Well first I think, again, let me restate that the withdrawal is a bad idea, precisely for the reasons that we have just discussed. In addition to that, well before, let me actually add one other reason why it’s so bad to leave the vacuum for Russia to fill. First it is US allies as you mentioned. A second reason is, Assad in power or anyone else that Russia feels is the right person in Damascus, even if it’s not Assad, under that sort of arrangement, Syria will never be stable. In fact, fighting in Syria is likely to continue. It might be lower level, a lower scale, but it’s going to continue.
So, when it comes to our interests about terrorism, stability in the region, Syria is going to remain a bleeding wound. In terms of what else we should be doing, it’s looking for leverage on other fronts, diplomatic and economic, signaling that we’re not disengaging from the Middle East. I think that’s very important because Putin has perceived for a long time now that we’re disengaging from the region and that made it easier for him to step in. If there is no vacuum, if there are no other opportunities, it’s going to be harder for him. He’s not dumb. You know, doing this balancing act, and he’s been very successful. It’s never been easy, and it’s a strong US presence that tends to deter him.
EDELMAN: Aykan and Merve, I want to turn to you, to talk about the Turkish dimension of this and again, how the US, what the US role can be here. So, given what Merve suggested, Aykan a second ago, that there ought to be some way to get to some kind of deconfliction, nonaggression, agreement that leaves some kind of stable equilibrium in Syria after the US withdraws, but given what you’ve already said about the political requirements, at least until April 1st, which I will point out is April Fool’s Day. Can Turkey actually make peace with the YPG? Which I think really precipitates the question, can they get back as you mentioned earlier to the peace process with the PKK that they undertook. Which arguably is the most constructive thing Erdogan has done in his entire time as Turkey’s Prime Minister or President, going back to 2014. I mean, is an untethered Erdogan capable of doing that, and is there a US role?
I mean, one of the things that I find troubling about with the withdrawal is, that the presence in Syria I think, would have enabled the United States to have actually play a constructive role, had it had been of a mind to, because of our connections in the KRG. We could have played a I think, a helpful role I think, in getting Turkey back to the table, to resolve its own problems in the South East. Is that now, kind of given the fact that we’re on our way out, and he’s on his way to complete unconstrained political control of Turkey, is there a possibility here to somehow traverse this and get back to a negotiation?
ERDEMIR: So beyond April Fool’s Day, I would say, we shouldn’t read too much into Erdogan’s firebrand rhetoric today. Because it was, as you said, Erdogan himself who changed Turkish history by starting negotiations as part of the Kurdish peace process, and it was again under Davutoğlu as Prime Minister and Erdogan as President during the Shah Frat operation, Shah Euphrates operation. That Turkey coordinated with the YPG, the relocation of the shrine.
And not only coordinated, not only YPG provided protection to Turkish forces, you know going deep into the Syrian territory, but also in Ankara and Istanbul at the level of the Turkish military and the Turkish intel, both YPG and PYD officials were hosted. So they worked together during that operation, which shows that Turkey can be as creative as the US in dealing with Syrian Kurds. Different, you know after the Syrian Kurdish alphabet soup, Turkey has dealt with different organizations there, productively.
So it is possible to return to that. That of course, means a major reshuffling of Erdogan’s alliances within Turkey. There’s no way he can do this with the MHP. He will need, if he wants to make progress on the Kurdish issue, you know, he’ll need to release elected pro-Kurdish lawmakers, mayors, and party officials. He will need to get back on the democratization path. I know these are not easy tasks but US does have a role to play there. US has been extremely productive as Erdogan also demonstrated, that Turkey’s relations with the Iraqi Kurds could be very different. In a very adversarial social context, Erdogan was the risk taker who turned Iraqi Kurds into partners. Who turned Turkey KRG relationships into win-win relationships.
So, I always argue, why not the same with Syrian Kurds? Of course, one wild card here is and let me end with that, is the almost four million displaced Syrians in Turkey. Erdogan, given the rise in anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey, Erdogan now has a keen interest in resettling the Syrian-Arab refugees in these northern Syrian territories. We’ve already seen some of that in the first two incursions, but I think Erdogan has set his eye on the Northeast. Now that would be a deal breaker, meaning I don’t see how Syrian Kurds could accept such a radical –
EDELMAN: Transfer of population.
ERDEMIR: – engineering in Northeast Syria.
EDELMAN: I mean, the other option for them of course is to give them Turkish citizenship and turn them in AKP voters which is –
ERDEMIR: Which was the original plan. But now, given the backlash –
EDELMAN: Now there are too many of them.
ERDEMIR: I think he is changing his mind.
EDELMAN: I could make a comment about voter registration and voter fraud but I won’t. Merve, let me give you the flip side of the question I put to Aykan. I asked Aykan, you know can Turkey maybe with US help, make peace with the YPG? What about the YPG making peace with Turkey? I mean, and just me adding one piece which is if you think about the SDF as a whole and this entire operation since 2014, it’s been the presence of the very small contingent of US special forces that have held this whole thing together. You know, to me, it’s a little bit like that game of Jenga. If you pull that block out of the tower, does this whole thing come crashing down, and if so, will they be capable of that actually making an agreement with Turkey? Or, will they be just too disorganized and too preoccupied with survival to do it?
TAHIROGLU: Well, I think it’s always in the YPG’s interest to want this kind of agreement with Turkey, because Turkey otherwise will just forever continue threatening them regardless of the circumstances. But I also think that the YPG wants that. I mean, I think the PYD wants that. And there are many indicators of it. One is which, of course is that the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, Ilham Ahmed, who has been in DC for the last two weeks, explicitly said that they would very much like to have some sort of a deal with Turkey, but also the YPG has never attacked Turkey unless in kind of retaliation or explicitly for self-defense. And that says a lot.
They also, the SDF said when Erdogan proposed the safe zone, which basically just means a Turkey controlled zone, that doesn’t include any PYD in it. They said they would be, they would find such a zone acceptable, if they could have some sort of international like Peace Force, maybe a UN led Peace Force to control it. Which I think at the end of the day shows good intent, you know? It really shows that there is this intent coming from the PYD that they don’t want to attack Turkey, they don’t want to war with Turkey. They’ve been saying this for years now. But I think the US could, as an intermediary, make those arguments, bring those arguments home to Turkey and try to go for it, like Aykan said, it’s very important for Turkey to restart the negotiations with the PKK for the peace, but I think the YPG might actually be easier as a first step, given the type of relationship that already exists with the YPG, and the – just the YPG’s relationship with Turkey and the way it has evolved over the last five years.
So maybe that could be a stepping stone into then getting the PKK to also come back to the negotiating table with Turkey. And vice versa.
EDELMAN: Dion, very quickly before we go to Q&A, I started with you, I want to give you the last word. Given what you’ve heard your fellow panelists say, and bearing in mind your description of US policy at the beginning as inconsistent and contradictory, and you know, if we let you run the zoo, how would you put together a US policy that would actually make coherent sense out of all of these different elements of the Turkish, Russian, and Kurdish dimensions?
NISSENBAUM: I was afraid you were going to ask that. I mean, I am a journalist so it’s not thankfully, my job to come up with policy prescriptions and I shouldn’t, but when I look at what’s happening, I think what I see is the most possible outcome at this point would be a YPG/SDF withdrawal from the border with Turkey. And you have kind of a Mansbridge model for place like Kobani and Cizre where you have Kurdish representation, political representation in these towns but not a military force.
So you create a quasi-buffer zone. Who patrols that I think is really up in the air. Because you talk to European allies about this, you know the US wants the Europeans to control this buffer zone. What they say is, “First of all, we weren’t consulted on coming in, going out. We don’t trust the Americans to protect us with air support if you’re going to leave. The whole idea was, in together, out together.” So they don’t want to stay of the Americans want to leave. So whether that can happen or not. And then the rest of the area then, Regime is probably going to come over and control it with Russia’s support. So Russia comes in. The Regime comes in and takes over the rest of that area, and Turkey kind of agrees to that kind of thing. Iran, US keeps control of Tanf in the South to have some sort of sense that they are having some sort of influence in the region. And Israel continues to do its air strikes in the area, and then everybody focuses on a political process for Syria that continues to muddle along so nothing happens.
EDELMAN: And you propitiate the President by telling him we’re not really occupying Tent. We just have a rotational presence that comes in and out.
NISSENBAUM: Something like that, so.
EDELMAN: It’s we don’t have a permanent base at Intra Lake. We have a rotational presence that’s been rotational since 1956. “There’s nothing so permanent as the provisional,” as Napoleon said. Let’s go to questions and there is a microphone so please identify yourself, and please put your comment in the form of a question with a question mark at the end of it.
LECHNER: Hi, John Lechner. I had a question on the Russian side. We’ve had a great breakdown of the various actors, domestic considerations when it comes to the war in Syria. But, I’d be curious to know what Putin’s own domestic considerations are. Whether or not Russians are weary of war themselves? What’s the domestic end game for him?
BORSCHEVSKAYA: Usually that, thank you, that’s a great question. You know, from the very beginning of Russia’s Syrian intervention in 2015, Russia’s domestic messaging to the public was quite unique. So if you look at that Russian propaganda efforts domestically in the Ukraine, it was very visceral, it was very personal. It was about stories, about fake stories about persecution, they need to protect fellow brethren. On Syria, the message was much more cautious. Very sort of, I would say sterile. You know, officially Putin said, “Russia is going into Syria to fight ISIS. To fight terrorists who otherwise are going to come back to Russia, so it’s better to kill them in Syria, rather than to risk domestic attacks on the Russian territory.” That was the official public explanation.
But there’s several things wrong with it. First, of course we know Russia never hit ISIS with any consistency. In fact, some of it, some of their airstrikes even strengthened that you could argue. But in terms of Russian public, Russian public was very much kept in the dark about what Russia was really doing. So initially, what you saw for example on television, were these very, they almost looked like video games. Planes taking off, bombing a territory. Emphasis on how little Russia was expanding in Syria because that was a very important element. The memories of Afghanistan were still, and still are very fresh for many a Russian, including the Kremlin and the campaign was organized very differently in many respects. We could go into a lot of details about why.
And then, we recall there were two so-called withdrawals from Syria that Putin announced, only to begin the buildup basically the next day. But that withdrawal also had a domestic message and that Putin is very careful not to give a picture of getting bogged down in Syria. And now, frankly yeah for the last year or so, Syria has not featured that prominently in Russian press. So, the public simply doesn’t know a lot of what’s happening. The mercenaries, the Wagner group was another very interesting element of it. First of all on the foreign policy front, use of private contractors gives Russia deniability. But also on a domestic front, it’s a lot easier to justify a campaign where there are volunteers that are getting paid to go fight.
Use of, for example, Chechen police in Syria also had an interesting domestic component to it because the Russian public is pretty weary of interventions at this point. And then sending people from the north caucuses domestically is a little bit easier for the public to swallow. I mean, then that’s just the reality. You know, in terms of the cost. There’s certainly a lot of secrecy surrounding Russia’s cost in Syria, but from what we’ve seen publicly, the costs have been fairly limited and so it’s been Russian manpower presence. So again, to sum up, the Russian public simply doesn’t know a lot. And it’s under the impression that it’s just not a major issue.
BOUZO: Hi, my name is Havey Bouzo, the Bureau Chief of Orient News. I didn’t catch the whole thing but I just heard Dion’s part and it’s very concerning to hear about the possibility of Assad and Russia taking over these segments of Syria where the SDF is controlling, besides the buffer zone, because people who are Arabs, they talk to me from there and they’re so terrified of the possibility that if Assad and Iran come in, they think that they will be slaughtered and they’re willing to leave their towns before that actually does happen. So, what do you think that will turn and what will it mean for our Iran policy, to basically allow these areas to be taken over by Iran and Assad, especially when we talk about the Raqqa and the surrounding areas dominated by Arabs?
EDELMAN: Dion, you want to take that?
NISSENBAUM: You want me to? I think there’s a debate within the Trump administration over the Iran policy, and what’s Syria’s place in that. It’s just a muddle, you know you – one of the concerns for this Trump administration is, they want to have a counter Iran policy. They’re trying to pull together this group, including Israel and Saudi Arabia to develop a broad policy to counter Iran in the region. But that’s, it’s a conundrum for them because people that don’t want it to be an explicitly counter Iran strategy, and that it’s broader than that. Not looking for direct confrontation, so you’re dealing I think, this fight within the administration over what to do about Iran, where to fight Iran, and whether it is the US responsibility to handle that for the people in that part of Syria.
You have a President that I said at the beginning, I think before you got here, that this is a President that believes that the regional actors should deal with their issues. It’s not America’s responsibility to address the question that you’re talking about, unfortunately and I think that’s the debate you have with the administration because there are people that feel that way. And from what I can see, it’s still playing out over what responsibility America should have for addressing the question that you raise.
EDELMAN: I think we got one over here.
KOWALSKI: Hi, I’m Phil Kowalski with the Middle East Institute. I have a question for Aykan and Merve. Given the massive Kurdish protest that took place in Turkey in September 2014, following Erdogan’s comments about the fall of Kobani being imminent and how costly and deadly they were, do you think that the prospect of further Kurdish protests should Turkey take action against Syrian Kurds in Northeast Syria? Do you think that plays at all into how he’s considering his next move in Northeast Syria?
ERDEMIR: My quick answer would be no. Turkey’s in a different political context right now. Post state of emergency Turkey is where Erdogan is consolidated enormous power, where he’s very brutal in cracking down on any sort of dissent, and I think the HDP, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party’s playing it smart, given most of their officials are in jail, so they’re using their human powers carefully. So I wouldn’t expect mass demonstrations resembling 2014, and I wouldn’t expect Erdogan to see that as one of the variables in his decision making matrix.
TAHIROGLU: Can I just also?
EDELMAN: Yes, ma’am.
TAHIROGLU: Two cents on that.
TAHIROGLU: Yes, I don’t think there are going to be any protests, simply because of the kind of oppression that Turkish society, including the Kurds are living in Turkish society right now. And another thing is of course, is the crackdown on the HDP has just strengthened so much and when Erdogan recently equated the HDP to the PKK, I mean the HDP is Turkey’s largest opposition party, millions of people have voted for it. I think it’s one of the most horrifying comments that he made over the last month to do that.
But at the same time, you brought up these protests in September 2014, and we’ve been talking about how the YPG helped Turkey’s operation in Syria back in February 2015 for the Suleyman Shah tomb. I mean, the YPG did that, only months after Turkey basically, the Turkish Army allowed ISIS to come in, thankfully didn’t materialize, but besiege Kobani and rape through the city. They were just standing there and not helping and of course the tension spilled over to Turkey and of course these massive protests happened. But even after that, the YPG agreed to cooperate with Turkey and I think that just says a lot about this relationship.
EDELMAN: Over here in the middle, I think we got –
OZEREN: Hi, my name is Suleyman Ozeren. I’m from George Mason. I just want to continue with a similar topic. Given the destruction occurred, since after the general elections in June 2015 in the Southeastern Turkey, given the mass arrest and there continues still, how do you think a kind of prospective peace is possible in Turkey? On which ground this peace is going to be constructed, given this destruction?
ERDEMIR: See, it is a challenge to talk about prospects of peace and reconciliation in Turkey. It seems impossible at this point, but at the same time going back to Merve’s brilliant comment, you know YPG/Turkey cooperation. Military cooperation, intel cooperation happened soon after ISIS. Which some Turkish, either negligence or support was butchering Syrian Kurds. So, also with the KRG. In today’s op-ed which provided the scoop about the Suleyman Shah operation, there was a reference to Iraqi Kurds, once again very racialist and, I don’t know, a pejorative term. Which still shows the sentiments among Turkey’s nationalist service. But despite that sentiment being very prevalent, Erdogan was able to establish a very pragmatic win-win relationship with the KRG, and he managed to have millions of Turks and Kurds in Turkey on board.
So, yes it looks quite impossible but when things get going, they get going in Turkey and it’s difficult to explain why it happens.
EDELMAN: But let me push the two of you on this, because on the one hand, having heard both of you I can imagine it being quite, in keeping with the questioner’s question, quite conceivable that you could get some kind of agreement about Northeast Syria with the YPG and with the PYD. But given what’s gone on in Southeastern Turkey since 2015, and more broadly since the coup, the prospect for a reconciliation inside Turkey seems to me much further from what’s conceivable or easily conceivable than the other. Do you see a distinction between the two? Is one harder than the other?
ERDEMIR: Socially and culturally, yes the challenges are there. But with the silver lining is this. I always argue the state itself as an institution. Is what most Turkish citizens really worship, the level of worship. But if the states, I know it’s an abstract concept, but if the states signal to the Turkish society, “This is a new game in town, as it was a new game back then.” We will see millions of people changing their alliances. We have seen this through the peace process, you know people who have, who used to be insulting Erdogan, suddenly started writing or speaking praise for Erdogan, and when the peace process was over, they were back to insulting Erdogan. I’m fully confident that those people will again be the ones to start that praising Erdogan and the peace process. Why? Because they see this as a signal, as an order from what they consider as the holy state. And if it’s what the state wants, people across the political spectrum fall in line.
I know this doesn’t – this is not a very optimistic way of looking at state/societal relations. This certainly doesn’t sound well for good governance and democracy in Turkey, but it’s a historical reality we have to live with.
TAHIROGLU: Can I?
EDELMAN: Please. Yeah.
TAHIROGLU: I would just say that Turkey is not really a democracy, so it’s Erdogan is not really beholden by public opinion. He’s beholden by certain domestic factors that aren’t entirely political and they can change, and because he has a one man rule, if that one man wants to make peace, he can make peace and the society will follow that, too. So I think yes he can, and especially if the United States puts in an effort to that end.
ERDEMIR: But if he wants civil war, there will be civil war. He could have that, too.
TAHIROGLU: He could have that, too.
EDELMAN: In the middle back here.
MAKSAD: Thank you, Firas Maksad, Arab Center, Washington, DC. The BYG cannot speak on behalf of the whole culture of Syria, of course, because there is a division and a large segment of that culture is supporting the Kurdish National Council, which being presented by the BYG and Erdogan. The second issue that, the Kurds in Syria in the last census, they don’t actually, barely 7 to 8%. And the whole, the majority of the Kurds in Syria are located in Damascus and in Aleppo. This is why actually, the similarities between Syria and Iraq is far from reality, far from fact. The issue of the proposal of the have self-autonomy of the Kurds in Syria is not supported by facts or any kind of realities on the ground. Thank you.
TAHIROGLU: I mean, decentralized rule is pretty important to have a functioning society and that aspires to be a democracy as well. So I think when we talk about autonomy, it’s really not about having a zone that is carved out for a particular group of people or not, but it’s really about having local control. Of course, it’s the same thing in Turkey when you look at the demographic composition that Kurds living in the west of the country, and Kurds living in the Southeast of the country. When we talk about Kurdish independence or autonomy prospects inside Turkey, we tend to talk about the South, and just simply the Southeast, but it doesn’t really hold, given the way the population have changed and the demographics have changed. I think once we have local autonomy and local administration, then it’s a far more participatory way of governance and I think you can avoid a lot of the problems that the Assad regime has caused in Syria for decades, so.
EDELMAN: The questioner’s point though is well taken in the sense of many of the people when they talk about this, described what you were just saying, I think we a lot more nuance about Kurdish autonomy in Syria as if we’re talking about the KRG in Iraq. And it’s clearly different for all the reasons you mentioned in terms of the far more diffused Kurdish population in Syria.
I think we’ve got a question down here, and I think we have time for one more after that, and then I think we have to close up.
ROKER: Hi, Allen Roker from the IFC. Quick question on the economy and how the US can use that situation to its advantage. Arguably for the past 20 years, or arguably Turkey is in the most fragile economic situation compared to the past 20 years. And the US has not so far done anything. The World Bank has not done anything much with the flirtations with Venezuela. But do you think, and then there’s the tweets from Trump recently where he did say that, the US would destroy the economy of Turkey. But you think a political situation could come through if US were to look at the economic implications or the economic situation of Turkey and what can be done on that front?
ERDEMIR: Now, I’ve always argued that, although Erdogan has while repeatedly, as recently as the day before yesterday, that he will never agree to an IMF bailout deal. I still would like to argue that April 1st, IMF bailout will be on the table. And this will be the biggest bailout the world has ever seen. You know, without Argentina we had a $50 billion bailout. Probably Turkey’s bailout needs to be 100, 150 billion dollars as a starting bid, and that of course can come with strings attached. $150 billion worth of strings attached. And that of course would involve the governance, transparency, the accountability –
EDELMAN: Rule of law.
ERDEMIR: Rule of law, and the question here is, how would that impact Turkey/Syria policy? How would that impact Turkey’s policy vis a vis Turkey’s Kurds, Syria’s Kurds, Iraq’s Kurds. And do we have a US, maybe a question to Dion. Do we have a US that’s well orchestrated, coordinated to take advantage of that negotiation with Turkey? To turn the bailout into a major opportunity for getting things back on track? Because in 2001 with the crisis, that’s exactly what happened. The IMF bailout deal with Turkey turned into Turkey’s strongest reform process with Kemal Dervis.
ERDEMIR: You know we had, micro credential reforms, we had complete overhaul of the banking system.
EDELMAN: Oh, the good old days when we actually had a US Ambassador in Turkey. I’m glad the questioner has raised the issue of Turkey and Venezuela. It’s beyond the scope of this panel. However, I would like to suggest that it might be something we want to think about for the future, and I would note that a senior unnamed US government official was quoted in the Turkish press today, counseling people in Turkey that before they decide to buy any gold from Venezuela, as a good idea, they might want to check with the office of foreign asset control with the treasury, to see if that might subject them to US sanctions.
I think we got one more question down here and then we’ll close up.
ZEBARI: Thank you, Karwan Zebari with the KRG. Two part question, maybe the first one for Dion. With the President Trump’s announcement to pull out from Syria in December, besides the blow back from Washington, what made the NSA in particular to start tweaking that? So they haven’t taken 180 degree turn, they’re still inconsistent, but they seem to have taken a 90 degree turn. At least a pull out time table has been taken off.
A second part question, maybe to Dr. Aykan, or the rest of the team is, do you see at some point where Erdogan and Assad start cooperating over this Rojava if you will of Northern Syria. Not too long ago, they were calling each other brothers and of course that deteriorated. And then finally, Ambassador, you mentioned that Idlib is a ticking bomb. Where do you see that blowing up? When?
ERDEMIR: So, again this week Erdogan said that Turkish intel is in with Syrian intel and he said, “We even need to talk to our enemies.” And again, you have to remember that, I think 2010, the Erdogan family and the Assad family were having double dates, taking cruises in the Aegean together. So, yes, a lot has happened since then. There are hard feelings. But at the same time, I think Erdogan has proven that he can be a pragmatist. Concerning the limits of that pragmatism, I’ll defer to Merve. What do you think is possible?
TAHIROGLU: I mean, sure he can acquiesce to Assad coming into the place of the – instead of the PYD, I think Erdogan wants to see his own proxies of course, take over those territories, but I think it would be okay with Assad coming there but would that be in Turkey’s interest as well? For the last five, six, seven years, Turkey has been stoking a rebellion against Assad. Assad hasn’t forgotten that. He’s not going to forget that, and this is a family that has previously used Kurds against Turkey as proxies. So I think, if Assad in any way agrees with Erdogan to kind of contain the YPG away from Turkey, I don’t think that’s really realistic and I think that’s really bad for Syrian Kurds as well, because the YPG has accomplished a lot over the last five years and I think it’s time for it to transition into a more normal political group.
And I think any kind of an agreement where Assad is there, that’s – Damascus will always, I think, want to keep the YPG as a proxy and that’s bad for the PYD and it might be just a political movement in general I think further, the Kurdish National movement in Syria is also bad for Turkey because from Assad’s perspective, you’re dealing with a country with these militants who are armed and who are well trained, and I think he’s going to want to redirect them potentially to Iraq, where they’re PKK bases and strengthen the PKK bases in the sense to use against Turkey in one way or another. And I think it’s both of these, both Turkey and the YPG are talking to Assad, but I think at the end of the day, neither of them would prefer that.
EDELMAN: Idlib, do we want to –
EDELMAN: And then I’m going to put Dion on the spot to answer the question about the NSC.
TAHIROGLU: I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to happen to Idlib.
EDELMAN: I mean, I’ll take a whack at that, which is I think actually despite his protestations of impatience, I think Putin rather likes the situation he’s in now, which is have Erdogan kind of on the hook, for regulating this situation in Idlib. And he can use this impatience as pressure on Erdogan to perhaps get things for Erdogan on other things. Right now they’ve got this sort of rump of the Tahrir al-sham bottled up in Idlib. It’s not really a threat to the Regime but it’s a useful tool for regulating his relations with Turkey. So I think he likes it just fine.
BORSCHEVSKAYA: You know, I would agree with that, I mean it’s a perfect situation because what Putin ultimately wants is, you know his modus vivendi is not a general resolution anywhere really. It’s just having that control.
EDELMAN: And making Russia be the key player.
NISSENBAUM: And then lastly on the NSC, I think everybody knows this was not a decision that anybody on the national security team supported. So, it was a decision made in this phone call without any details about what it meant besides, “We’re getting out, you take over.” So since that’s been happening, people have been trying to meat on the bone as it were what that means. And then when you have a national security team that doesn’t support the decision, they’re trying to put their own agenda into place to counter Iran, to protect the Kurds, which was not part of the original decision when it was made. And so you see this play out again and again with the President.
He makes a decision and people try and figure out what he means and sort of impose their one agenda on that broad guidance. And I think that’s what happened with the President on the call with Erdogan. He’d said twice before, as he said publicly, “I want to get out of Syria.” Get out in six months and then they ask for six more months. So he said, “Okay,” came back again. “Give me six more months.” And then he said, “You know what? We’re just getting out. I’ve given you all the time you want.” So you see this playing out again and there’s this friction between the President and his national security team. Even though he has people now who are more in line with his views, they still have differences and you see this play out again and again, on national security decisions.
EDELMAN: I want to thank our audience for a series of really thoughtful and probing questions. Thank you very much. We had good questions and no speeches. That’s pretty rare in Washington. I want to thank our panelists, Aykan, Anna, Merve, and Dion for a very thoughtful discussion. It’s been a privilege to be up here with the four of you. And I want to thank FDD for sponsoring this and giving us an opportunity to explore this in the depth that we were able to today, thank you all.