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Erdogan's gamble against Trump pays off in Syria

Erdogan and Trump

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pulled off quite the feat.

Betting that the US won’t “obliterate” the Turkish economy, as Trump threatened, Erdogan has brokered a deal with the US to establish a Turkish-controlled buffer along the Syrian border, a move he’s sought for quite some time.

Last week, officials from Turkey and the US sat down to reach an agreement on northern Syria, in a bid to halt the latest battle in Syria’s eight-year civil war.

Turkey agreed to a ceasefire in northern Syria, allowing a five-day window for Kurdish forces to withdraw, stemming a humanitarian crisis and working their way towards peace in the region.

The deal was struck when Erdogan met US Vice President Mike Pence for talks in Ankara.

Background 

Up to 35 million Kurds live in the mountainous region spanning Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. They’ve never had a country of their own. 

Under President Bashar al-Assad and, before him, his father Hafez, Kurds were denied basic human rights in Syria.

When the uprising against Assad began in 2011, the country’s Kurdish political parties avoided taking sides. When government forces withdrew from Kurdish areas to concentrate on fighting elsewhere, Kurdish militia groups, known as the YPG, seized control.

In 2014, the Islamic State (IS) launched an attack on Kobane, sparking condemnation around the world, and a US-led coalition carried out airstrikes, and partnered with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group dominated by the YPG.

How is Turkey involved?

For a long time, Turkey has struggled to tackle Kurdish terrorism committed by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) operatives within its borders. Each time Turkish troops targeted PKK operatives, they would cross the border into Syria. 

To address this, Turkey has long desired the creation of a 32-kilometre buffer that runs for 480km along the Syrian side of its border to push back the YPG, and by association, the PKK.

In the zone, Turkey hopes to settle up to 2m of its 3.6m Syrian refugees.

Wishing to avoid an offensive, US and Turkey agreed in August to set up a buffer on the Syrian side of the border. It was patrolled by US and Turkish troops and YPG co-operated, withdrawing its fighters and weaponry.

Turkey and Syria map

US troops withdraw

However, two weeks ago, Erdogan told Trump that a cross-border operation was imminent, a necessary move to push back the YPG. Trump responded saying that US troops would not be involved. 

As Turkish forces moved into Syria, US officials announced the withdrawal of their troops from northern Syria. Trump has been accused of abandoning a US ally, since the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have fought alongside US troops against the IS.

However, Trump said last week that the Kurds were “not angels”.

"It's not our border. We shouldn't be losing lives over it."

A possible end to US sanctions 

US sanctions have been in place against Turkey since last year’s spat over an American pastor who was detained in Turkey but later released. These sanctions have had a significant impact on the economy.

Pence has said the US will lift the economic sanctions imposed on Turkey when the military offensive ended, and would not impose more in the meantime.

However, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has told journalists the offensive will be halted when SDF and YPG troops leave the buffer zone.

"We are suspending the operation, not halting it," he said. "We will halt the operation only after [Kurdish forces] completely withdraw from the region."

Impact on Turkey's economy

Turkey’s currency, which is still suffering after a crisis a year ago which was due in part to US sanctions, hit its lowest point in almost four months after US troops left north Syria and Ankara ordered its offensive.

However, this is likely to be temporary. In recent months the lira has stabilised and inflation had slowed, indicating that Turkey’s $766bn economy, the largest in the Middle East, had left its troubles behind.

Erdogan, who has several times been elected on the promise of a strong economy, knows he’s on shaky ground with an extended campaign in Syria. A long offensive will be high-cost and will impact on much-needed tourist income, so it’s in Erdogan’s interests to resolve the conflict as quickly as possible.

If Turkey can resolve the offensive decisively, the sanctions that rocked the economy will be lifted, precipitating a flood of investment and exports, which will boost the government coffers. 

Turkey will also need to tread carefully with its US relationship, with Democrats pushing for greater sanctions against the country. 

Impact on Turkey’s property

Despite any regional uncertainty, Turkey’s position as a major political and strategic power is solid. Its economy, which in the last decade has weathered the global financial crisis, the war in Syria and a year of battering after the 2016 coup attempt, is rooted in sustainable foundations. 

Unlike the European Union, where investors are finding themselves on shaky ground, Turkey offers foreign investors a stable, reliable avenue to invest in property. The country’s ties with US may be shaky, but in his dealings with Trump, Erdogan has shown that Turkey’s strategic position and power might be the trump card that keeps on giving.


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