President Donald Trump has a preferred approach to international diplomacy: Step 1. Turn a long-running problem into an acute crisis with his rhetoric. Step 2. Strike a deal that ends the crisis he caused but not the underlying problem. Step 3. Claim victory for solving the problem.
The most high-profile example of this was Trump’s summitry with Kim Jong-un. Trump and Kim’s “deal” reduced the risk of war with North Korea, but that risk was mainly present because Trump had continually threatened to go to war with North Korea, something he doesn’t do now. Kim won a diplomatic victory and didn’t even have to give up his nuclear weapons.
The administration’s just-announced cease-fire deal with Turkey follows a similar pattern, but the actual deal may be even worse in this case.
Under the deal reached by Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday in Ankara, Turkey has agreed to pause its military operation in northern Syria for five days to “allow for the withdrawal of the YPG”—the previously U.S.-allied Kurdish militia that was formerly in control of the area—from a safe zone running 20 miles south of the Turkish-Syrian border. The safe zone will be “primarily enforced by the Turkish Armed Forces.” The U.S., in turn, agreed to lift sanctions once the military offensive stops.
Turkey’s foreign minister was quick to reject the description of the deal as a “cease-fire,” saying it was only a “pause.” Nonetheless, Trump was quick to claim victory:
Trump is likely referring to “tough” love he displayed by applying sanctions and writing the “don’t be a tough guy” letter to Erdogan that was made public yesterday, and ignoring when he undercut whatever negotiating strength he had by saying that the whole situation “has nothing to do with us.” But the more important point is that this deal should not have been necessary at all. The Turkish offensive is only happening because Trump gave Erdogan the green light for it last week when he withdrew American military support for Kurdish forces. The president is once again “solving” a crisis of his own creation.
What’s more, he’s solving it on terms that are stunningly favorable to Turkey. Before the offensive, the Turkish and American governments had already been working to set up a safe zone in northern Syria. They were at odds over the size of it, with Turkey wanting it 20 miles deep and the U.S. pushing, on the Kurds’ behalf, for one only a few miles wide. Now, Turkey has gotten exactly what it wanted all along. Plus, the Turkish offensive has already forced the Kurds to cut a deal with Russia and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime, effectively ending the autonomous Kurdish political unit of Rojava. And Erdogan will not only get the sanctions lifted but will presumably get a big political boost in home. Not a bad 10 days’ work for the Turkish leader—not to mention Russia and Assad’s considerable gains.
The pause in fighting may be short-lived. Early reports suggest that Syrian Kurdish leaders, while welcoming the Turkish pause, are not entirely on board with the 20-mile safe zone proposal. So, this appears to be a “cease-fire” negotiated with only one side.
This may ultimately serve Trump’s purposes. If the Kurds reject the deal’s terms—which again, were terms the U.S. considered unacceptable until this week—and continue fighting, Trump is likely to paint the former allies in America’s fight against ISIS as the aggressors and fully back Turkey.
Trump has already begun to slather praise on Erdogan, as he did on Kim after they “fell in love.” On Wednesday, the president also described the Kurds as “not angels” and called the militant Kurdish group PKK a worse threat than ISIS. On Thursday, Trump said of the border region that Turkey “had to have it cleaned out” and considered it a positive outcome that Turkey is “not going to have to kill millions of people.”
It may turn out that what happened Thursday was not the end of a fight, but the U.S. switching sides.