by Abdulaziz Kilani
On October 9, Turkey launched a military operation against the Syrian Kurds. The move came just hours after the U.S. announced that it was withdrawing its military forces from northeast Syria. Ankara’s move has been widely criticized, but President Erdogan said on Friday that Turkey will not stop its operation no matter what anyone says.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced on Sunday that they had reached a deal with the Syrian government that has paved the way for the Syrian military to deploy into formerly SDF-held areas in the northeast—a deal that was probably their only available option for assistance against the Turks. Washington has imposed sanctions against Turkey, although many look at Donald Trump’s withdrawal decision as the green light for Turkey to pursue its military operation in the first place. Indeed, the withdrawal decision and subsequent contradictory actions have raised questions about whether Washington can be considered a reliable ally under Trump.
“Trump’s impulsive decision to pull his troops from northeastern Syria has rattled his regional allies,” Jordanian political commentator Osama Al Sharif told LobeLog. “If anything, Trump’s move underlines his view of America’s changing role in the world and waning influence in the Middle East—an issue that should worry America’s allies in the region.”
This is the second instance within just a few weeks in which Trump seems to have let a U.S. ally in the region down. When two Aramco facilities were attacked last month, Trump’s response was not as militarized as some may have expected. The goal of recent U.S. military deployments to Saudi Arabia appears only to involve reassuring the leadership in Riyadh, not to retaliate for the attack, and Trump only authorized the deployment after the Saudis agreed to pay for it. Now after betraying America’s Syrian Kurdish allies, no one knows what could happen tomorrow.
“The Arab countries should not rest assured that President Trump will be their forever friend and defend them and their interests,” Imad Harb, director of research at Arab Center Washington DC, told LobeLog. “He has proven since the beginning of his term that he is a transactional president who primarily looks out for his personal interests, even at the expense of American national interests and, most importantly, American credibility.”
The Arab League condemned Turkey’s invasion on Saturday in an emergency meeting called by Egypt—which, just like Algeria (who reiterated its “categorical rejection of any military intervention undermining the sovereignty of the Syrian state” on Wednesday) and Lebanon (who condemned the operation) never severed ties with Damascus. The League warned of retaliatory measures unless Turkish troops withdraw from Syrian territory. Turkey, in turn, dismissed the Arab League statement, saying it misrepresented Ankara’s military operations.
The Arab League was not unanimous in its opposition. Libya has rejected the League’s statement. Qatar, a strong ally of Ankara, and Somalia expressed reservations about it. Doha, moreover, has also defended Ankara’s operation. “We can’t put all the blame on Turkey,” Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said at a Global Security Forum meeting in Doha on Tuesday, adding that Ankara had been forced to respond to an “imminent threat for Turkish security.”
Interestingly, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said on Sunday the League’s statement “does not necessarily reflect the official position of the kingdom.” Morocco “did not voice reservations about the [final] statement out of the kingdom’s keenness not to disrupt the general atmosphere of the meeting,” he explained.
Although several Arab countries condemned Turkey’s operation, the reasons for doing so may differ. If we take Saudi Arabia for instance, whose relations with Turkey plummeted in the wake of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year. Despite the fact that in 2016, then-Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that his country supported Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria, on October 9 a Saudi foreign ministry official said that the Kingdom “is concerned over this aggression and considers it as a threat to regional peace and security,” stressing the need to ensure the safety of the Syrian people, as well as the stability, sovereignty, and the territorial integrity of Syria.
The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain—which both took steps towards restoring their relations with Damascus last year—also condemned the offensive. In a statement carried by state news agency WAM, the UAE said that the aggression represents a dangerous development and a blatant and unacceptable aggression against the sovereignty of an Arab state in contravention of the rules of international law. Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry called on “the UN Security Council to accelerate its responsibilities in confronting this attack, in order to maintain peace and security and to provide a supportive atmosphere to continue efforts aimed at finding a peaceful solution in Syria.” It is worth noting that Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa has repeatedly voiced support for Israeli military strikes inside Syria, acts that also threaten regional peace and security.
The Iraqi government has also expressed concerns about the Turkish operation. On October 9, Baghdad called it a “grave escalation.” Iraqi President Barham Salih tweeted that the offensive “will cause untold humanitarian suffering [and] empower terrorist groups,” stressing that the world “must unite to avert a catastrophe, promote political resolution to the rights of all Syrians, including Kurds, to peace, dignity [and] security.”
Baghdad is worried about the possibility of Islamic State (IS) remnants using the Turkish invasion as a distraction in order to cross the border into Iraq. A spokesperson for the Iraqi Ministry of Defense told Rudaw on Tuesday that Iraq has deployed more troops to the border with Syria to prevent as many as 13,000 IS militants and affiliates entering Iraq amid the fighting.
Jordan has also called for an end to the Turkish offensive, albeit in more measured tones. Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi reiterated on Saturday that Amman is calling on the “brothers in Turkey to immediately stop the attack on northern Syria,” stressing that “the political track is the only way to resolve the Syrian crisis and all its repercussions.” The Jordanian government supports a political settlement in Syria but is also intent on maintaining good relations with Turkey. Therefore, it seems to be trying to strike a balance in its comments on the situation.
The Kuwaiti government has called the Turkish operation a threat to stability and peace in the region and urged restraint. This position appears to be a principled one, as Kuwait has consistently portrayed itself as a country that does not favor military actions to resolve disputes. For instance, in 2017, a few months after the Gulf Crisis and the blockade on Qatar, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah said, “What is important is that we have stopped any military action.”
Thus, while on the surface most Arab states have adopted similar positions with respect to Turkey’s actions in northeastern Syria, their reasons for doing seem to differ. One lesson that Arab leaders could take from this incident is that they should not rely on Trump. Harb added that Trump’s abandonment of the Syrian Kurds, despite the services they rendered in the fight against IS, indicates that no matter how loyal American allies are to the United States, he will do what he deems necessary and justified to help his political fortunes. He pointed out that Trump has promised his political base that he will end America’s involvement in Middle East wars and this action will help convince them that he is keeping his promise.
“As [Trump] fights multiple battles in Washington, including possible impeachment, he sees that throwing something like this to the base (in essence, throwing the Kurds under the bus) will help in his re-election campaign,” Harb said.
The lack of clear consensus on U.S. policy on certain issues has not only led to confusion but also to doubt that the United States is anyone’s ally. Indeed, Trump increasingly seems to be expressing that he is his own ally. Arab regimes should take this at face value.
Abdulaziz Kilani is a British-Arab writer. He is also the editor-in-chief of Sharq Wa Gharb Arabic electronic newspaper. He tweets as: @az_kilani.