Dangerous Turkish-US escalation ahead of Washington talks
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Turkey on Feb. 15-16 was expected to ease tension between Washington and Ankara. In it, Tillerson and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu pledged cooperation in the joint struggle against terrorism and it was decided that officials from the two countries would first meet on March 8-9 in Washington. Çavuşoğlu would then head to the U.S. capital to meet Tillerson on March 19 in a bid to find common ground to solve ongoing problems between them, particularly over the situation in Syria.
But a war of words seems to be escalating as we get closer to the talks, due to start tomorrow. Most recently, Ankara was infuriated by Pentagon spokesman Colonel Robert Manning’s statement that U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) will continue, specifically praising a “General Mazlum” and warning that Turkey’s Afrin operation was distracting the SDF from fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“General Mazlum” or “Mazlum Kobani” is one of the names used by Ferhad Abdi Şahin (aka. Şahin Cilo), who is on Turkey’s list of most wanted terrorists as a ranking operative of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its extension in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). As admitted by U.S. Special Forces Commander General Raymond Thomas at the Aspen Security Forum in July 2017, the SDF is a PR-friendly name for the YPG, which Thomas personally suggested because the YPG is considered an arm of the PKK, which is designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. government. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly asked U.S. President Donald Trump to cease collaboration with the YPG/PKK against ISIL, offering Turkey’s help instead.
The U.S. wants Turkey to wrap up its ongoing military operation in northern Syrian, which is continuing with the indirect support of Russia and which aims to clear the Afrin district on its borders from the control of the YPG/PKK. Rather than trying to stop the latter from fighting the U.S.’s NATO ally, Washington has repeatedly warned that SDF militants have been distracted from fighting ISIL and that many are rushing to Afrin to fight Turkey.
The interesting thing is that on March 5, the day when the Pentagon spokesman accused Turkey of distracting from the fight against ISIL, Turkish police detained 16 ISIL militants who had infiltrated from Iraq and Syria and were allegedly preparing attacks against U.S. targets.
Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hami Aksoy said on March 6 that Colonel Manning had “talked nonsense,” and demanded once again that the U.S. put an end to its collaboration with one terror group in order to fight against another one.
Ankara has apparently started to suspect ahead of the talks in Washington that the Pentagon, under Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, is not willing to fulfil promises given by Secretary of State Tillerson. The whole current effort, some suspect, is simply an attempt to steal time from Turkey. Indeed, before departing for Germany on March 6, Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu said Ankara was tired of stalling and would request a timetable from the U.S. in order to have more confidence in its sincerity.