As National Security Advisor John Bolton heads to Turkey today for discussions about President Trump’s announced decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syrian battle spaces, he might question Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about his expressed intent to re-establish the Ottoman Empire and how Erdogan calculates U.S. policy in the region to figure into that ambition.
He might cite from Erdogan’s February 2018 assertion that “modern Turkey is a ‘continuation’ of the Ottoman Empire,” or ask exactly what Erdogan meant when, in November 2018 he declared that “Turkey is bigger than Turkey; just know this. We cannot be trapped inside 780,000 kilometers [Turkey’s total area].” He might perhaps ask also what exactly Erdogan meant by threatening the U.S. with an “Ottoman Slap,” in reference to American support for Kurdish forces fighting against the Islamic State.
Then there was the November 2018 “International Islamic Union Congress,” held in Istanbul. Headed by Erdogan’s chief military advisor, Adnan Tanriverdi, the event’s participants endorsed the aim of “unity of Islam” through establishing the “Confederation of Islamic Countries.” It was not entirely clear how or if such a “Confederation” would differ from a Caliphate or Islamic State.
Clearly, U.S. objectives for the region are not the same as Turkey’s.
In the areas of the former Syria closest to the Turkish border, it has been obvious for some time that Ankara intends to carve out a sphere of influence and control, aimed specifically at annihilation of Syrian Kurdish forces operating there. Turkish planes, tanks, and troops first invaded northern Syria in Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016 and expanded that offensive with Operation Olive Branch in 2018. Turkey now controls an area of some 3,500 square kilometers, encompassing hundreds of towns and villages. There is no indication that Ankara intends to withdraw from this territory any time soon.
Because the Trump administration to date has declared the mission of U.S. troops in Syria to be only the defeat of the Islamic State, other (arguably equally important) national security objectives including standing by our Kurdish allies, re-evaluating where Turkey is headed, and blocking aggressive Iranian expansion that directly threatens Israel have been less well-articulated. President Trump’s withdrawal announcement thus caught many by surprise, both in the region and apparently even among his own senior advisors. His decision followed a December 14, 2018, phone call with Erdogan in which Trump reportedly agreed that Turkey should take over the fight against the Islamic State as well as management of territory seized from it. In view of Turkey’s unambiguously jihadist neo-Ottoman agenda, alarm bells began to go off. For just these reasons, then, Bolton’s 4-day trip to Israel and Turkey this week will be critical as has been the apparent willingness of the president to reconsider the timetable for any troop withdrawal.
As Center for Security Policy President Fred Fleitz wrote on New Year’s Day, “the President did the right thing by adjusting his plan to quickly withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. This shows that he is listening to experts, members of Congress and foreign leaders.”
Speaking on Sunday, January 6, to reporters accompanying him on his trips to Israel and Turkey, Bolton said that Trump will not withdraw American troops from northern Syria until and unless the Turkish government guarantees it won’t attack the Syrian Kurdish troops who’ve been at our side fighting against the Islamic State. Bolton also indicated that any withdrawal timetable will be conditioned on U.S. priorities for the region, saying, “Timetables or the timing of the withdrawal occurs as a result of the fulfillment of the conditions and the establishment of the circumstances that we want to see.”
A comprehensive U.S. strategic policy for the Middle East has long been wanting. Indeed, a thorough overhaul of the entire post-9/11 understanding of the enemy we fight and that enemy’s threat doctrine has never been more urgent. There may be no better juncture than this turning point in U.S. ME policy and no better team of advisors now on board the Trump administration to address this most critical of policy priorities.
Clare M. Lopez, a former CIA officer, is Vice President for Research and Analysis at the Center for Security Policy.