President Donald Trump likes to declare that he has managed to accomplish things that other presidents had tried and failed to achieve. He did it again on Thursday — baffling experts, who said his latest claim made no sense at all.
The claim was about his deal with Turkey.
The deal calls for Turkey to suspend its military operations in northeast Syria for five days; for Kurdish forces to move at least 20 miles away from the Turkish border, surrender their heavy weapons and dismantle their fortifications; for the US to avoid the additional sanctions on Turkey it had been planning to impose Monday; and for the US to remove existing sanctions on Turkey if what Vice President Mike Pence called a “ceasefire” holds. (Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said it was a “pause” and “not a ceasefire.”)
Trump tweeted that “people have been trying to make this ‘Deal’ for many years.” Speaking to reporters in Texas after the tweet, Trump said previous administrations had tried to make this deal for “10 years.”
Later in his comments, he said they had tried for “15 years.” Then he said he has heard negotiations have been happening for even more than 15 years.
He credited his own personality for the outcome.
“They couldn’t get it — other administrations. And they never would have been able to get it unless you went somewhat unconventional. I guess I’m an unconventional person,” he said.
Facts First: Trump’s claim is baseless to the point of being nonsensical. The deal is a narrow agreement specifically tied to the Turkish offensive that followed Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from a Kurdish-held region of northern Syria, not an agreement that resolves longstanding regional disputes. Further, presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush never sought to give Turkey anything like the concessionary terms of Trump’s deal. In addition, the Syrian civil war had not even started 10 years ago or 15 years ago.
“I honestly don’t have the slightest idea what he’s referring to. It doesn’t make any sense,” Ben Rhodes, who served as deputy national security adviser to Obama, told CNN.
“Turkey has wanted to do this (move in, dislodge Kurds, set up their own buffer) for a while and we didn’t want them to do it in 2016 and they didn’t,” Rhodes said. “So the only people who were trying to get this deal were the Turks, and only since the Kurds gained some quasi-autonomy with our support in 2015-16.”
It is not only former Obama officials who were bewildered by Trump’s claim.
Henri Barkey, an international relations professor at Lehigh University who studies the Kurds and the Middle East, said there was no basis for Trump’s claim “whatsoever.”
“This does not make any sense at all,” said David Romano, a Missouri State University professor of Middle East politics who studies the Kurds.
Romano cautioned that we are still learning what the deal entails. But he said: “No one, absolutely no one, has been trying to get this sort of deal except Turkey. Ten years ago, the Syrian civil war wasn’t even happening, much less 15 or 20. Trump seems to think he just solved Turkish-Kurdish conflicts in general, which if true would betray a stunning lack of understanding about the situation.”
Hassan Hassan, director of the non-state actors program at the Center for Global Policy think tank, had a similar assessment: “He probably means the deal between Turkey and the PKK, but that’s more than 15 years, in Turkey not in Syria, and he hasn’t made any progress on that (unrelated to the ceasefire). He seems to think he’s struck a deal between the PKK and Turkey!”
“I can’t think of any way of interpreting this statement which could make it true,” said Will Todman, an associate fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s a temporary ceasefire agreement for a limited part of the Turkish-Syrian border which will be very difficult to implement. It’s is essentially a recognition of the current status on the battlefield.”