Trump’s choices on Turkey and Syria

The Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) hosted three panels last Thursday on Turkey and the Middle East under the Trump Administration. The panels discussed the future of US/Turkish relations as well as Turkish involvement in the Syria conflicts.

The first panel, “Syria and Iraq’s impact on US/Turkey Relations,” was moderated by Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu of the SETA Foundation and featured Hasan Basri Yalcin, director of the Strategy Program at the SETA Foundation, Sasha Gosh-Siminoff, President and Co-Founder of People Demand Change, and Luke Coffey, Director of the Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

Yalcin said the bilateral relationship between the US and Turkey under the Obama administration  proved disappointing for both parties, leaving Turkey no choice but to align with Russia. He remained optimistic for the Trump administration and identified three policies tracks it might pursue: 1) interventionist, 2) non-interventionist policy, or 3)  simply a continuation of the Obama policy. The best policy for more balanced US/Turkish relations would be an interventionist approach. Increased support would swing Turkey back to the US and away from Russia and Iran.

Gosh-Siminoff noted that US and Turkish interests align in their desire for stabilization in Syria, but the war on ISIS complicates US involvement. The Trump administration faces a multifaceted challenge: they must balance the needs of traditional allies with the needs of the Syrian people and the terrorist threat.

Coffey sees a need for a greater understanding of the ground troops America supports and arms in the Syrian conflict. He expressed doubt that Americans would support Kurdish fighters if they knew more about their Marxist ideology and ties to the PKK terrorist group; he criticized legislative laziness in differentiating among Kurdish groups. Coffey stated that there are not enough moderates on the ground in Syria to enact change, a statement Gosh-Siminoff contested, arguing that greater support for civil society is essential to deterring extremist ideology and the threat of terrorism long-term. He claimed that Syria’s history as pluralist and moderate society means the country will likely return to that path, if we can provide the environment for this to happen.

The second panel, “The Trump Administration and Middle East Policy,” was moderated by Kadir Ustun, Executive Director at the SETA Foundation, and featured Kilic Kanat, Research Director at the SETA Foundation, Nicholas Heras, Fellow at the Center for New American Security, and Hassan Hassan, Fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

Kanat identified external influences, such as the upcoming European elections, that will impact Trump’s policy in the Middle East. The new administration will likely be focused primarily on Iran, and it will be difficult to balance regional policies with the nuclear deal. The US will need to reassure traditional allies and assuage growing dissatisfaction with the US in Turkish public opinion.

Heras said National Security Adviser Flynn wants to follow a Balkans model in Syria, dividing it into zones with the cooperation of local forces, then focusing on securing borders and improving governance to maintain Syria’s territorial integrity. The challenge for the Trump team will be convincing other Arab states to contribute to the effort while they are busy in Yemen. Hassan echoed the idea of dividing Syria into zones, but warned that if we  focus attention on one area, ISIS will pop up in another. The administration needs a plan, not for an occupation but rather to help communities upgrade themselves.

The final panel, “Turkey’s Fight Against ISIS,” shifted the focus to Turkey’s role in regional politics. The panel was moderated by Kanat and featured Ufuk Ulutas, author of the recently released State of Savagery, Murat Yesiltas, Director of the Security Policy Program at the SETA Foundation, and Bassam Barabandi, a political adviser at the Syrian High Negotiation Committee.

Ulutas sees ISIS as a proto-state: it maintains a sophisticated and professional army and intelligence network while providing public services. Its emphasis on ex-communicating rivals and establishing a caliphate make it different from other Salafi jihadists like al-Qaeda. ISIS has diverted the attention of the international community towards themselves, exacerbating chaos in the region and giving it an opportunity to fill the vacuum. Yesiltas followed this with an overview of Turkish efforts to defeat ISIS, including ways ISIS has targeted Turkey in retaliation and poses threats to Turkey’s borders and stability. Barabandi added that if the US and the Turks do not depend on local forces they will be unable to defeat ISIS. They need Sunni Arabs for a real solution. The more they recruit and empower the Arabs, the better and more lasting the solution will be.

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