Turkish commentators cautiously welcome U.S. pullout from Syria

Turkish commentators welcomes U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria where they have backed Syrian Kurdish forces - Turkey’s sworn enemy - and hoped the move would herald better relations between the two NATO allies

The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria appears to open the way for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to carry out his threat to attack the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish force that holds most of northeast Syria and, backed by U.S. air power, has spearheaded the ground offensive that has all but defeated Islamic State in Syria.

Turkey sees the YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) umbrella group as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting inside Turkey for more than 30 years. The YPG denies any links.

Trumps’ announcement of his decision came after a phone call between Trump with Erdoğan and appears to have gone against the advice of Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned in response.

Turkish commentators said Turkey’s stance played a role in Trump’s decision, but most suspected the U.S. president might have to back down due to pressure from his administration. 

Hilal Kaplan, a columnist at pro-government Sabah newspaper, said the SDF and the YPG were both terror groups whose time had ended.

“What Turkey and Russia will do from now on the ground together will make sure that they will not have a place on the table on which decisions on Syria’s future will be made,” she said.

Burhanettin Duran, another Sabah columnist, said relations between Turkey and the United States had been about to collapse due to U.S. support to the YPG. 

“In such an environment, the telephone call between Erdoğan and Trump opened the way for the decision to withdraw forces and its announcement. Turkey’s determination to fight the YPG pushes the United States to wrap up its Syria file,” he said.

In order to fill the power vacuum that will emerge after the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the Trump administration should act in coordination with Turkey, said Duran, adding that this process should include the elimination of the YPG forces and the strengthening other Kurdish groups. 

Yalçın Akdoğan, a former deputy prime minister, said in the pro-government Star daily that Turkey’s determination might have played a critical role in the U.S. decision to withdraw its forces from Syria.

“But,” he said. “Let’s not forget this. No country would withdraw from a place where it paid a high price without protecting its interests. It is not realistic to think that United States will leave Syria to its competitors in the region.”

The United States should have better appreciated the value of Turkey while trying to tackle Syria, Akdoğan said. “To design the whole policy in Syria over a terrorist group that is an extension of the PKK was an approach that was destined to collapse,” he said.

Serkan Demirtaş said in Hürriyet Daily News on Friday that, according to senior Turkish officials, before making his decision, Trump asked Erdoğan whether Turkey could clear the rest of ISIS in Syria. 

“It was well-reported that Trump had pushed the button after his conversation with Erdoğan. But Ankara was notified of the decision a few days after, on Dec. 17,” he said, adding that Ankara was still suspicious about the move, thinking that the U.S. establishment might prevent Trump implementing his plans. 

Meanwhile, on social media, some called on Kurds to make a new beginning in Turkey.

Selim Sazak, a Turkey expert who is a PhD candidate at Brown University’s Watson Institute, reminded Kurdish readers that Turks and Kurds share the same land and the same fate. “Neither the United States nor Russia would do for us anything other than what serves them. Peace is possible, but both you and we have to rid ourselves of the parasites sucking our blood and stealing our wealth,” he said on Twitter. 

Mustafa Akyol, an opinion writer for the New York Times, also sent “a friendly note to Kurds”. 

“You see, Americans will come to Middle East, do this and that, but ultimately will pack and go.  You will be still left with Arabs, Turks, Persians. So let’s all strive to find a way to live together peacefully, with mutual respect and compromise he said.