Amb. W. Robert Pearson, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey (2000-2003) and director general of the U.S. Foreign Service (2003-2006), told Middle East Forum Radio on October 23 that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's bid for "hegemonic control over the geography of Syria south of the Turkish border" is likely to fail, even with an American green light:
[Erdoğan] has tried for years now, offering in Idlib, Aleppo, and along the northeastern border to establish that kind of hegemony and get the Russians to agree to it. But the Russians have never agreed to it. They'll push the Turks out of every bit of that geography they can and they will complete that job. Now that they're doing patrols along the border with Turkish forces, something Erdoğan really did not prefer to have happen but is happening – backed by Syrian government, state armed forces – sooner or later, the Russians are going to say to the Turks, "please leave Syria," and it will happen.
Since Erdoğan surely understands this reality, Pearson reasons that the real reasons for the Turkish invasion earlier this month were "purely political." The Turkish leader "needs to shore up a base that is weakening" and compensate for his party's defeat in Istanbul's mayoral election in June. "This was his way of trying to rally his supporters to back his other domestic actions. A lot of people have suffered as a result of it."
Pearson, who was serving as U.S. ambassador in Ankara when Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002-2003, recounted how Erdoğan has changed over the course of his long tenure. "He's evolved the articulation of his position, really from the time he came into politics, from a man who was moderate, reached out to all elements of the society, ran on a liberal platform in 2002, to the authoritarian rather hardline approach that he takes today."
The AKP's ascent, like that of Islamists elsewhere, was aided by the corruption and ineptitude of the secular political establishment:
They had gained support because they actually did things for people at the common level and reached out to communities in a way that the established parties didn't do. The established parties had faced a number of charges of corruption, and they had, frankly, run out of energy. And for a year, at least, before the election in 2002, we in the embassy knew that the support for Erdoğan's party was running at about 30%, which is a high number for Turkey. But none of the people in the establishment, when we talked to them, would accept this as credible. They thought that these were manufactured numbers and then when the results occurred and Erdoğan's party was elected they were quite shocked. But we were not.
Pearson is pessimistic that the U.S. congress can bring sufficient pressure to bear on Turkey to change Erdoğan's thinking, predicting "lots of condemnation, no sanctions":
To be honest with you, Erdoğan doesn't care what the U.S. does because [it has] now completely abdicated any influence or control in Syria. [It has] nothing on the table with Turkey that Turkey would find appealing to bargain about. So the real question is whether the Senate will pass a veto-proof heavy sanctions bill that would punish Turkey economically as a result of the incursion. I think that President Trump and his allies are working strenuously to let the heat about this issue out without allowing any of the substantive reaction that the Senate's been talking about. ... [A]ny attempt to pass a veto-proof bill in the Senate will be met by strong opposition from [Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and will have a very difficult time passing. So if it doesn't pass, then there's nothing that will be done against Turkey that is more than window dressing, and the U.S. will eventually be regarded as a non-player.
Pearson disagreed with MEF Radio cohost Gary C. Gambill's suggestion that it may be time for Washington to reconsider its designation of Turkey's PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) as a terrorist group:
Well, let's look at it from the other end of the telescope. When we were trying – the UK, the U.S. and others – to bring peace to Northern Ireland, we didn't start by deciding the IRA was not a terrorist organization. We started with a dialog process that led to a peace agreement, which led to the promise of political involvement by the IRA and its colleagues in the politics of Ireland rather than terrorist act. So if you want to do this right, you start a dialog with the Kurds, which would be a very good idea, and eventually you reach an accommodation.
Pearson disputed Turkish claims that the Syrian Kurdish YPG (Peoples Protection Units) – the main force within what the U.S. military rebranded as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – is one and the same as the PKK:
Well, they are kissing cousins, there's no doubt about that, and they sympathize with each other. But there is no evidence whatsoever that the YPG was supplying arms, especially American manufactured arms, to the PKK, which we all recognize as a terrorist organization which wants to carve out separate territory in Turkey. ... They were more interested in the protection of their own people and their own territory in northeastern Syria.
Asked if the U.S. should support Kurdish self-determination, Pearson drew a distinction between the right to self-determination and the right to self-defense. Kurdish self-determination requires that one or more of the four countries (Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran) that contain part of the Kurd's historic homeland "either agree to it or accept it," which he called "a steep mountain to climb."
The U.S. withdrawal forced Syrian Kurds "to jump into the arms of the Russians."
But the U.S. "was right in asserting that the Kurds had a right of self-defense," he says, recounting how they were savagely attacked by ISIS as it expanded in 2013 and 2014. "No one else stepped forward to protect them or help them. So we did. and they were marvelous in helping us with bringing ISIS to the point of near collapse."
The tiny U.S. military presence in northeastern Syria should have been maintained long enough to "ensure that the Kurds made the best deal possible with the Damascus and with Turkey regarding their future in Syria," Pearson argues. "By fleeing as we did, we made it impossible for them to do that, and they had to jump into the arms of the Russians and the Syrians just for survival purposes. That's where we are today."