Erdoğan seen as possible instigator of Trump’s Syria withdrawal decision

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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and US President Donald Trump shake hands before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 21, 2017 in New York City. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski

As the US administration and allies around the world struggle to understand the rationale for President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to pull all American forces out of Syria, some eyes have turned to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the instigator of the surprise move, according to The Washington Post.

Erdoğan — who spoke with Trump at the Group of 20 summit three weeks ago and again on the telephone Friday — had threatened to send troops across the border to attack the US-allied Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria.

Officials familiar with the Friday call said that Erdoğan, among other things, had stressed to Trump that the Syrian Kurds were terrorists — allied with Kurdish separatists in his own country — and asked why the United States was supporting them rather than its NATO ally. He noted that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had been vanquished and questioned the need for an ongoing US troop presence, saying that Turkish troops already massed on the Syrian border could handle any problem there.

The Erdoğan call, many concluded as they tried to understand the reasoning behind a decision widely considered rash and unwise, was the only thing that could have provoked Trump. A senior congressional aide speculated that the call, and the withdrawal, were “definitely related.”

Jonathan Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that the Syria decision also coincided with the administration’s notification to Congress late Tuesday that Turkey’s long-sought purchase of US-produced Patriot missile defense batteries had been approved after a years-long battle over the terms of a deal between Ankara and Washington.

“It would be disturbing if a strategic gesture was made for commercial reasons,” Alterman said.

A senior administration official, made available to brief reporters on the Syria decision Tuesday, mentioned only Turkey as among US allies that Trump had informed of the decision in advance. “He informed President Erdoğan as a neighbor of Syria,” the official said.

The Turkish government did not respond to a request for comment by the Post, although Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu reported a Wednesday telephone call with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Trump’s Syria announcement came amid other major news in Ankara — a Turkish victory at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in a ruling against expanded US aluminum and steel tariffs and the arrival there of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for a visit with Erdoğan.

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