President Donald Trump’s letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, urging him not to go after an enemy Kurdish military group in neighboring Syria as U.S. troops depart the war-torn country, indicates that the U.S. president wants to corner his Turkish counterpart. But Erdogan, who has run Turkey for nearly two decades, may well be smarter than to let himself be trapped.
So far, the Turkish president shows no sign of stopping his relentless advance despite the threat of American sanctions Trump delivered in his missive, made public Wednesday but penned last week. Erdogan has calculated that even if the sanctions come, they won’t be sufficient to disrupt the Turkish military strategy; he figures that what Trump wants most is to bring U.S. troops home, and he won't do much more to prevent the offensive against the Kurds.
Erdogan wants to see Ankara rising as a great power with influence over Muslims across Turkey’s former Ottoman Empire possessions.
Erdogan is without doubt the most consequential Turkish leader in nearly a century. The move is just the latest example of Erdogan’s ability to play off major world powers to get what he wants — though at the cost of his international relationships.
In 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established modern Turkey in his image as a secular state oriented toward Europe and the West. Styling himself as the new Ataturk since becoming prime minister in 2003, Erdogan has revolutionized Turkish politics, striving to recast the country from the top down in his own image: profoundly Islamic and socially conservative.
Moreover, Erdogan’s “new Turkey” is primarily oriented not toward the West but the Middle East. Erdogan wants to see Ankara rising as a great power with influence over Muslims across Turkey’s former Ottoman Empire possessions.
Erdogan’s quest for greatness for Turkey is not unusual. It is, in many ways, a continuation of the policies of the Ottoman sultans as well as Ataturk, all of whom sought great power.
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However, Erdogan’s path to the same end is different. While his predecessors folded Turkey into the West to exert global influence, Erdogan’s goal is to make Turkey a stand-alone power: first in the Middle East, then globally.
Accordingly, Erdogan has sought to influence the affairs of Turkey’s Muslim-majority neighbors. One of his most dramatic moves on this score has been to intervene in neighboring Syria’s civil war by supporting and arming rebels trying to oust the regime of Bashar al-Assad — hoping to replace him with leadership in Damascus friendly to Ankara.
The United States has also intervened in Syria. Most substantially, following the rise of the Islamic State militant group that flourished in the vacuum created by Syria’s war, the U.S. started to partner in 2014 with the Syrian Kurdish group YPG. That has helped make the YPG a part of the most effective force fighting ISIS and challenging Assad.
But the YPG, or Kurdish People’s Protection Units, is an off-shoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has committed repeated attacks on Turkish civilians as part of its decadeslong war with Ankara. The PKK is a terror-designated entity by Turkey, the U.S. and other NATO member countries.
Turkey never accepted the U.S. policy of working with a group that reports to its sworn enemy, but it tolerated it as long as it was tactical and helped undermine ISIS. In the aftermath of the fall of ISIS’s “caliphate” in 2017, though, Ankara started to insist that Washington end its relationship with the YPG. American officials had previously told Turkey that its cooperation with the Syrian Kurds was not just tactical, but also temporary and transactional — a message recounted to me by numerous U.S. officials.
After Washington did not wean itself from the YPG at the speed Ankara wanted, Erdogan last week decided to launch a military offensive into Syria. His goal: to undermine the YPG’s budding political presence and strengthening enclave in northeastern Syria.