Turks not wanted by US in Syria talks
It was only the first working week of the New Year for Americans after the Christmas break, but news reports indicating a rough start to 2018 for Turkey-U.S. relations broke one after the other.
Turkey summoned Philip Kosnett, the charge d’affairs of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, twice in the space of 24 hours. The first summons came over reports that U.S. troops had started training the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria. The second came in protest at the State Department’s categorization of Turkey as a country with an “increased security risk,” along with Sudan and Pakistan.
In the meantime, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stepped up his criticism of the Trump administration for harboring Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen on U.S. soil, referring to him as the mastermind behind the July 2016 coup attempt. Erdoğan suggested that U.S. inaction over Gülen’s extradition has proven that international law and bilateral agreements between the two countries are null and void.
U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Steve Goldstein has responded to these comments by underlining that such language would not help serve Washington’s interest in Turkey being a stable, democratic, prosperous and reliable ally. He also added that they believe the government of Turkey “could be a strong ally of the U.S.” When you do a reverse reading of Goldstein’s words it is indeed an official confirmation of what we have been hearing in Washington for months, that Erdoğan’s government is currently not acting like an ally of the United States.
The Syria theater is certainly the top breaking point of what is still called as a “strategic alliance” on paper. The U.S. partnership with the YPG, which Ankara sees as directly related to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), will likely continue to strain whatever is left of that strategic alliance.
A small group of like-minded countries convened in Washington in recent days to discuss the post-conflict phase in Syria. Representatives of the P3 (the U.S., France, Britain), Jordan and Saudi Arabia were all present at meetings at the State Department. There is little surprise that Turkey was not among the invitees at the meeting, which was focused on trying to find a credible and acceptable way to represent northeastern Syria in the Geneva process.
Although the military fight against ISIL is almost over, it is paramount for U.S. interests that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) remain in full control of the areas cleared of ISIL until the final phase of a new political process in Syria. Only a robust SDF stronghold would assure the U.S.’s intent of effectively countering the growing presence of Russia and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria shoulder to shoulder with the al-Assad regime.
That is the primary reason why Washington is working hard to find a sellable formula to include the SDF, which heavily depends on YPG command, in the transition to a political process. Trying to bring the SDF/YPG into political talks would mean that the U.S. is somewhat ready to support Syrian Kurds’ demands for a federation in Syria, despite continuous official statements from Washington emphasizing that the U.S. seeks nothing other than a unified Syria.
It is crystal clear that U.S. policymakers are not big fans of having Turks around when they discuss Syria, as Ankara keeps claiming that Washington’s Kurdish partners on the ground are a bigger threat than the al-Assad regime. It almost feels like the Americans are now conducting Syria business almost in a secretive fashion, in order to avoid further uproar from Turkey.
In his controversial new book “Fire and Fury,” which provides a very provocative account of Trump’s first year in the White House, journalist Michael Wolff wrote the following: “An effective Trump foreign policy doctrine was to reduce the board to three elements: powers we can work with, powers we cannot work with and those without power whom we can functionally disregard or sacrifice.” Turkey certainly does not fall into the first category in the context of Syria. Although the second category sounds grim, we should certainly not want to see Turkey being considered in the third category!