Cautious optimism in Turkey–US ties

Cautious optimism in Turkey–US ties

Fikret Bila

We can describe the political atmosphere after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Ankara as “cautious optimism.”

The meeting, in which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received Tillerson, was also attended by Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. It was said that this trilateral format, which went somewhat against Turkish and American foreign affairs traditions, was requested by Tillerson. But this arrangement was criticized both in the U.S. and Turkey in terms of procedure.

Leaving aside procedural discussions, the visit had been described by Çavuşoğlu as one that would “either repair or break” Turkey–U.S. relations. These comments seemed to raise the stakes for the meeting.

Possible improvement in ties

On the second day of Tillerson’s visit, a joint official statement was issued and both Tillerson and Çavuşoğlu faced questions from the press. Both the messages in the statement and their answers to reporters signaled that relations between the two countries will not be broken. On the contrary, confidence-building steps are planned to be taken to normalize ties. This situation showed that both parties are willing to cooperate to rebuild confidence. The possibility of gradual improvement has thus emerged.

Some parts of the joint statement created particular optimism for Turkey, including “the preservation of the territorial integrity and national unity of Syria is the common and ultimate objective” and “Turkey and the United States reiterate their resolve to fight against ISIL [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant], the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Al-Qaeda, and all other terrorist organizations and their extensions.”

For Ankara, the expression of “their extensions” referred to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Indeed, the inclusion of this expression in the statement and Turkey’s emphasis that the PYD and the YPG are extensions of the PKK was registered in the statement, even if it did not directly name them. This reality has therefore been recognized by the U.S.

Also inspiring optimism in Turkey was Tillerson’s statement emphasizing closer “cooperation” between the two sides. Indeed, it was stated that joint mechanisms for cooperation between the two countries will be formed in the first half of March.

Manbij will be the test

Turkey’s cautious approach on whether relations will improve and whether the situation in Syria will go back to the pre-ISIL status quo stems from the desire to see whether the U.S. will take concrete steps on the field.

The U.S. previously did not fulfill its promise that “the YPG will be driven out of Manbij and sent to the east of the Euphrates,” and Tillerson himself made a covert confession about this. “We made some promises, some of which we have not been able to fulfill yet. Our first focus will be on Manbij,” he said.

In other words, Manbij will be a test for Ankara in rebuilding its trust in the U.S. and normalizing bilateral ties. Ankara can restore trust in Washington if the U.S. takes the YPG to the east of the Euphrates, as it promised. This may also enable the possibility of the joint deployment of Turkish and U.S. soldiers together, which was reportedly suggested by Turkey.

In short, Ankara is maintaining its cautious stance. It is apparently waiting to see what the U.S. will do in Manbij before taking further action, which is sensible.

Fikret Bila, Opinion, hdn,