Who triggers anti-Americanism in Turkey?
It is not the first time U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) Brett McGurk raised eyebrows in Turkey. His remarks last week at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, which by the Turkish government were considered as an insinuation of a link between Turkey and Al Qaeda fractions in Syria’s Idlib province, was only the last epitome of mutual distrust between him and Ankara.
In Turkey for long he was named and shamed as the architect of the U.S. policy to partner with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, which is nothing else than the extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for Ankara. I remember Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu right after attending the inauguration of President Donald Trump back in January telling us at the Turkish Embassy in Washington that the actions of McGurk, like wearing a YPG uniform, raised anti-Americanism in Turkey. I did an extensive search and never found a single photo of McGurk in YPG uniform, but maybe the Turkish intelligence had one!
There was a strong expectation from the Turkish government that Trump would get rid of the diplomat who was appointed by Barack Obama. Not only Trump did not do that, he further empowered McGurk by sticking to a counter-ISIL strategy which ended up in supplying heavy weapons to a group Turkey considers a top national security threat.
This is the thorny framework where McGurk’s Idlib remarks became the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Ankara’s angry protest for being portrayed as somewhat supporting Al Qaeda terrorism was conveyed both to him personally by Ambassador Sedat Önal by phone and also to his institution at several levels. I learned McGurk rejected claims that in that speech he was establishing a link between Turkey and Al Qaeda in Syria and defended he was actually suggesting the opposite by emphasizing it is not a problem that Turkey should face on its own. A similar elaboration was provided to interested journalists like me by the State Department spokesperson, which did not contain even a hint of an apology.
I decided to re-watch the recorded video of McGurk’s infamous remarks. Indeed, he questioned how the leaders of Al Qaeda made their ways to Idlib, saying that they will discuss the issue with Turkey. Furthermore, in the same 1 minute and 28 seconds, he said, “The approach by some of our partners to send in tens of thousands of weapons and looking the other way as these foreign fighters come into Syria may not have been the best approach and the Al Qaeda has taken the full advantage of it.”
I do not have strong feelings about McGurk like the Turkish government does. However, I definitely perceive the same message here just like Ankara when I hear those words. Here the gist of the matter is to understand whether McGurk is talking about a current unease on the ground regarding Turkey’s relations with its favorable Syrian opposition groups or basically referring to the period between 2012 and late 2015 when the U.S. saw Turkey’s open border policy toward any anti-Bashar al-Assad fighters as a serious concern.
Judging by how the State Department justified McGurk’s remarks and how Secretary Rex Tillerson praised his work in his very first press conference in six months, it is clear that his perception of what is currently happening in Syria and what should be the way forward is owned by the U.S. administration. Thus, I cannot help but wonder if McGurk was actually giving us a heads-up on the next address after Raqqa for possible contention between the U.S. and Turkey: Idlib. We will probably find out the specifics of that as the post-ISIL era nears.
As much as I can understand Ankara’s diplomatic reaction against McGurk, I find it highly irresponsible for some pro-government Turkish newspapers to target an American diplomat with headlines that contain serious elements of hate speech. The ever-rising anti-Americanism in Turkey is not a one-way street. Certainly, American policies have a big role in why 72 percent of Turks see U.S. as a threat to the country’s security. However Turkish officials must also come to terms with how they intentionally made highly sensitive diplomatic files as a punching bag of domestic politics. It takes more than one American diplomat to mobilize one nation’s fear!