The F-35 won’t fly to Turkey
Turkey and the United States seem to have finally agreed on how to solve the Manbij puzzle in Syria, which has been poisoning relations like an open wound for almost two years. A long-awaited summit between Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week in Washington sealed a road map, which represents the U.S.’s official commitment to the withdrawal of Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to the east of the Euphrates River.
Following the announcement of the deal, U.S. officials confirmed they are committed to implementing the road map as quickly as possible, but also insisted that they cannot attach a specific timeframe to it. In reality, behind closed doors they agreed on a very concrete and specific timeframe, which requires the process to be completed on Sept. 5. The first phase of the 10-day diplomatic preparation needs to be completed this week. The second phase of preparations on the ground needs to be over 30 days after the diplomatic preparations are concluded. This means we must start seeing concrete steps on the ground roughly towards the end of July.
The road map requires the deconstruction of both the Manbij Military Council and the Manbij Civilian Council, in which the YPG cadres have been running the show. Although the U.S. side keeps highlighting that the number of Arab members surpasses the number of Kurds in those councils, they well know that the structural hierarchy in them ensures that the driving ideology remains that of Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The reason why Americans keep highlighting the number of Arabs is because they do not want a total destruction of the councils, but to keep the experienced Arabs on board. Thus it won’t be an easy sell to Ankara, which will probably lay out suspicions over some Arabs who have been fighting under the PKK ideology for a long time now.
The trouble is that all these aspects of the road map will have to be negotiated and mutually agreed. The road map, as it was endorsed on June 4, only provided the framework for all the work that needs to be undertaken in 90 days. Tough bargaining lies ahead. Fully aware of the fact that some glitches might be unavoidable, the U.S. side refrains from openly admitting the calendar that it has indeed committed to. They know that even a delay of a few days could trigger bad press, hence trouble.
In summary, the Manbij deal will be open to vulnerabilities all the way along. However, for the time being, the road map has helped both sides to get rid of the time pressure in the Syria-related crisis in relations. Americans, in a way, have successfully managed to prevent this issue from becoming a propaganda weapon for President Erdoğan and his government in their campaign for the June 24 snap elections.
We might indeed see partial lifting of another time pressure over bilateral relations after the ceremony on June 21 at Texas Forth. Despite both Senate and the House recently including proposals to halt the delivery of F-35s in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2019, the first F-35 will be delivered to the Turkish side on that day.
The Turkish government has not decided the level of representation in that ceremony. Ankara is probably waiting to see who will be present from the U.S. side. When their first F-35 was delivered two months ago the defense minister of South Korea was there, as well as one senator and one congressman from Texas. It is not difficult to imagine that Turkey’s ceremony at Fort Worth will not be a real party like the Koreans had. There will certainly be representatives from the Pentagon and the U.S. Air Force. But the idea that some members of the U.S. Congress will happily pose with Turkish officials in front of that F-35 seems like a pipe dream.
It seems that the F-35 will be delivered to the Turkish side but it will not fly to Turkey for almost two years, while Turkish pilots are trained with it on American soil. The Trump administration will use this to defend itself against Congress, arguing that the F-35 project will not be compromised until that plane lands in Turkey while hoping in the meantime that Ankara will drop its commitment about the purchase of S-400s from Russia.
The Turkish translation of this is that the F-35 crisis with Washington will actually not be over until that plane is finally deployed on Turkish soil. And we will still have another 99 planes left to go!