Turkish president Barak Erdoğan is convinced that US talks with Turkish rebels in Syria, in which John Bolton reportedly told Ankara to “take the Kurdish militias out of Afrin”, can result in an outcome he has been calling for for years: a land swap with Russia.
Turks, Ukrainians and Greeks opposed to the Assad regime sought to counteract that plan with demonstrations outside the Russian embassy in Istanbul on Friday. Erdoğan called Moscow “the best friend of Turkey”.
Under the July 2016 ceasefire, the Turkish army began to arm and train Syrian rebels – predominantly Turkish Kurds in the form of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – to battle Islamic State (Isis) and support Turkey’s wish to expel the Syrian regime from the region.
“The US, by triggering a military campaign against the FSA [Free Syrian Army] and Syrian Democratic Forces and now telling Turkey to come with your guns, must take responsibility for what happens next,” Erdoğan said. “The desired outcome that Turkey has always sought will be achieved: putting an end to the US alliance with terrorists and Russia’s involvement in our region.”
Turkey has taken an increasingly combative line with the US after the latter made it clear that the YPG would not be disarmed. Last weekend, Erdoğan stood in a Turkish-NATO crossroads where American troops and Syrian Kurdish fighters had a joint military operation. “We have learned from history that foreign troops have no place here and we hope that this operation will be used as a lesson,” he said.
A day later, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, appeared to take a more conciliatory approach. On Thursday, during a visit to the region, he met Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and announced a package of US-Turkish economic agreements. Pompeo said the package would include a railway line that would “increase mutual ties.”
While the talks continued into the night, Turkish ministers voiced fears that the US would never take the Kurds out of Afrin. “If the US says we must do this and we must do that, we will do it,” Erdoğan said.