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Trump’s Capitulation to Erdogan Is Complete

Eli Lake

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The strange thing about the “cease-fire” negotiated Thursday in Ankara between the U.S. and Turkey is that one party isn’t actually fighting and the other seems unlikely to abide by it. 

Turkey’s foreign minister said the agreement “is not a ceasefire” but rather a pause in military operations. He vowed that those operations would continue until Kurdish fighters — aligned with the U.S. until earlier this month — leave the border area entirely. For good measure, he also contradicted Vice President Mike Pence, saying his government never promised not to send its army into the city of Kobani.

Nor is it likely that Kurdish forces will agree to Turkish demands. For one, the Syrian Democratic Forces have already struck a bargain with Russia and the Syrian regime, allowing the Syrian army into the semi-autonomous zone it controlled. The deal reached in Ankara was just between Turkey and the U.S.

And those are just a few of the problems with the agreement negotiated by Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Far from fixing a problem caused by President Donald Trump’s diplomatic bluster and caprice, they have compounded it. The U.S. has essentially acceded to Turkey’s demand for control of a 20-mile buffer zone deep into Syrian territory. The Turks intend to use this new territory to relocate the more than 3 million Syrian Arab refugees now living in Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been open about this. Just this week, he outlined his plans: “We will secure the area extending from Manbij to the Iraqi border and then facilitate 1 million Syrian refugees’ return home in the first phase and, later on, the return of 2 million people.”

But this safe zone is an area that is for the most part historically Kurdish. If the Turkish military and its allied militias are allowed to dominate the area, then it is a near certainty that Kurdish civilians will suffer.

And while it’s hard to confirm early reports in the fog of war, that appears to be exactly what is happening. New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi tweeted the grisly autopsy report of a murdered Kurdish politician. Public violence like this is meant to send a message that all civilians are targets. In essence, America has agreed to let Turkey solve its Syrian refugee problem by creating a new Kurdish refugee problem.

Then there is the message this sends to Erdogan himself. The Turkish leader has humiliated Trump and the U.S. in recent weeks and months. He went ahead with the purchase of a Russian S-400 air defense system this summer, over several U.S. objections, and has faced no sanctions. He ordered his military to violate an earlier safe-haven agreement that to which Turkey had previously agreed. His forces fired artillery on a U.S. outpost last week. And he has metaphorically — and literally, according to the BBC — thrown Trump’s “Don’t be a tough guy” letter into the trash.

In exchange for this disrespect and petulance, Erdogan got what he has wanted all along. He started a war to create a buffer zone in northern Syria, then got the U.S. to agree that he be allowed to keep it. Trump is even now repeating Erdogan’s talking points, claiming (without evidence) that the Syrian Kurds have launched attacks into Turkey. “In all fairness they’ve had a legitimate problem with it,” Trump said Thursday, referring to the safe zone. “They had to have it cleaned out. But once you start that, it gets to a point where a tremendous amount of bad things can happen.”

That point has already been reached. Bad things are indeed happening, and will continue to happen. And there’s little reason to believe Trump’s capitulation in Ankara will do much to stop them.

To contact the author of this story: Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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