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Trump’s ‘green light’ to Erdogan on Syria leaves dilemma on Iran

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Presidential palace in Ankara, Turkey, on July 9, 2018.

ARIF AKDOGAN/BLOOMBERG

By SELCAN HACAOGLU | Bloomberg | Published: December 20, 2018

Turkey and Iran are wasting little time as a new race for influence gets underway in Syria after President Donald Trump's order to withdraw American troops from the war-torn country.

Less than an hour after Trump's abrupt decision on Wednesday, President Hassan Rouhani's plane touched down in Ankara for a previously planned visit. The Iranian leader was given a gun salute at a welcoming ceremony with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the following day.

The jostling lays bare a dilemma for Turkey, a U.S. NATO ally, over whether to improve ties with Iran or try to curtail its influence. Trump's order represents another shift in the rapidly changing landscape around Syria, with the U.S. this week making a proposal to sell the Patriot missile-defense system to Turkey. Days earlier, Erdogan threatened to start a military operation targeting America's Kurdish allies, a group known as the YPG, in northeastern Syria.

"Turkey could interpret the U.S. troop pullout and Patriot proposal as a green light for an attack on Kurdish YPG militants," Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, said by phone. "Turkey's military foray into northeast Syria could eliminate its nemesis in Syria but at the same time risks skirmishes with Iran-backed Shiite militants."

A senior official familiar with Turkey's policy in Syria played down threat of a clash with Iran. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official confirmed that Turkey will need to fill the power vacuum created by America's departure and may also have to cultivate allies among Sunni Arab forces in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.

While Trump declared "historic victories" over Islamic State, the move to exit Syria drew bipartisan criticism from U.S. lawmakers who warned that it leaves the country's future in the hands of Russia and Iran, allies of President Bashar al-Assad. Their intervention in the conflict averted Assad's potential defeat in a conflict that started more than seven years ago.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish group in Erdogan's cross-hairs has been fighting Islamic State in coordination with U.S. forces, and it has received American support in the form of cash and weapons. Ankara says the organization is an affiliate of the PKK, designated a terrorist group by both Turkey and the U.S. Additionally, Turkey is trying to deal with Islamist militants in Syria's last rebel stronghold of Idlib in the country's northwest.

On Thursday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar was quoted as saying that "we're working very intensely on Manbij and the east of the Euphrates," referring to his country's planned offensives against Kurdish militants in Syria.

The prospect of Erdogan's deeper entanglement in Syria is rife with risks. The Turkish army opened fire on a group of Shiite militants early last year to halt their advance toward the Kurdish stronghold of Afrin before the town's capture under an agreement with Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Erdogan, who is struggling to steady a nosediving economy ahead of local elections in March, might be itching for a fight against Kurdish militants in Syria that could help him consolidate the support of nationalists at home.

Trump's changing stance complicates the calculus for Erdogan. After balking for years at selling Patriot batteries, the U.S. proposed just doing that in a move that could bring Turkey more firmly within NATO's orbit. At the same time, Turkey has in recent years embarked on an uneasy partnership with Russia and Iran as Assad's forced started to reclaim control.
 

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