How to protect the Kurds in Syria without US boots on the ground

How to protect the Kurds in Syria without US boots on the ground
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Judge orders Democrats to give notice if they request Trump's NY tax returns Trump's doctor issues letter addressing 'speculation' about visit to Walter Reed MORE last Sunday threatened to “devastate” the Turkish economy should Ankara attack the Kurds in Syria after the United States withdraws from the country. The next day, after a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump dramatically shifted his tone, tweeting that he saw “great potential to substantially expand” economic ties between America and Turkey. Trump switched to carrots from sticks because the two leaders apparently agreed to establish a “safe zone” for the Kurds in northern Syria, although details of the arrangement remain uncertain.

If President Trump is determined to prevent Erdogan from launching another offensive against the Syrian Kurds, then he is right to focus on the vulnerable Turkish economy. Even if the proposed safe zone is implemented, the U.S. will need a way to ensure that Turkey respects it. If no safe zone emerges, then the need to deter unilateral Turkish military action becomes all the more important.

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Syrian Kurds, many of whom occupy towns along the Syrian-Turkish border east of the Euphrates River, form the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s critical partner in the fight against the Islamic State. However, Erdogan considers the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG, a vital contributor to the SDF, to be an existential threat due to their ties with the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group in Turkey. Following President Trump’s announced pullout, the Turkish defense minister threatened to “bury” Kurds along the north Syrian border.

Even in the absence of U.S. forces in Syria, Washington can lean on Erdogan’s pressure points. One of them is the troubled Turkish economy, which is saddled with slow growth, high inflation, a weakened currency, and an unfolding debt crisis. With local elections looming in March, Erdogan may be disinclined to risk a full-blown economic emergency. The U.S. should use this dynamic to its advantage.

President Trump’s threat of economic devastation sent Turkey’s currency tumbling, with the Turkish lira losing more than one percent of its value against the U.S. dollar within hours of the market’s open the next day. If the Trump administration were to reiterate such a message and — more importantly — bolster it with tangible action, Washington could wreak havoc on Turkish markets. What might such action look like?

First, President Trump could threaten to sanction any individual or entity conducting or facilitating cross-border military action east of the Euphrates River. Targets could include combatants, companies that materially support operations, and members of the Erdogan regime who plan or approve offensives. Such sanctions not only would exact a cost on the regime itself, but also could impair the Turkish economy through the chilling effect they would have on foreign investors and creditors. The Turkish economy is already teetering, and the last thing it needs is additional capital flight.

Second, the administration could indefinitely suspend the delivery of the F-35, the U.S.-developed, fifth generation fighter plane. Congress has used the F-35 as leverage in the past. Last summer, it temporarily blocked the transfer of the jet to Turkey due in part to Ankara’s refusal to release then-imprisoned pastor Andrew Brunson. Turkish markets would likely react accordingly. 

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Finally, the administration could eliminate or modify the waiver that currently allows Ankara — despite the November reimposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil sector — to import roughly 60,000 barrels per day of Iranian oil. By comparison, Turkey was buying roughly 230,000 barrels a day of Iranian oil prior to the resumption of sanctions, according to Bloomberg data. Given Turkey’s dependence on foreign oil, higher energy prices — compounded by a weakening Turkish lira — could hobble Turkey’s domestic market, eroding disposable income and causing further political headaches for Erdogan.

If the U.S. wishes to protect the Kurds in northeast Syria, it must persuade Ankara that the costs of defying Washington far outweigh the benefits.

While the removal of U.S. ground forces from Syria makes this task more difficult, the Trump administration still has powerful tools at its disposal. If it takes advantage of them, America can avert a crisis and begin to reassert its will in Syria. All without boots on the ground.

Andrew Gabel is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter at @Andrew_B_Gabel.