From Erdoğan to the EU and the US
The message to the U.S. voiced concern about the continuation of a process agreed between the two countries during outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Ankara on Feb. 15-16. As a result of those talks, a delegation of Turkish diplomats, military and intelligence officers met their American hosts in Washington on March 8 to work on a detailed plan to remove the Kurdish militant People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the Syrian town of Manbij, as previously agreed, to the east of the river Euphrates. For Turkey the YPG, which is the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is a terrorist threat, especially so close to the Turkish border.
The plan would be jointly supervised by the militaries of the two NATO countries, in order to leave the city to its Arab inhabitants who migrated to Turkey following the capture of the town by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Manbij was taken from ISIL with the help of YPG militants working as the ground force of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).
The modalities of the Manbij plan were not finalized and were left for the agreement of Tillerson and Çavuşoğlu, who were scheduled to meet on March 19. But on March 13, U.S. President Donald Trump removed Tillerson from office and the meeting was cancelled.
In his speech on March 16, Erdoğan referred to the change in the State Department. “The U.S. has suggested a new method [for Manbij]. We don’t know what kind of method the new team [of Mike Pompeo] will follow … But we don’t want to be stalled,” he said. Erdoğan wants to see whether the new U.S. secretary of state will keep the promises of Tillerson or whether he will ask for more time, which will strain Ankara more.
There could be another problem here too: In Erdoğan’s meeting with Tillerson, he did not want any note takers or translators in the room and asked Çavuşoğlu to translate. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) had criticized Erdoğan at the time, asking what would have happened if Tillerson denied what he said after the meeting, with no official register to refer to. And now Tillerson is leaving office.
Erdoğan’s message for the EU is also related to Syria. Slamming the European Parliament’s March 15 call for Turkey to end military operations against YPG militants in the Syrian town of Afrin, Erdoğan addressed European politicians with the following statement: “If we had not stopped the flow of migrants to Europe you would all be looking for holes to duck in. You begged us to stop them and we did.”
This message was ostensibly made to remind Europe of the 2016 immigration agreement between Ankara and Brussels, but the timing of the message is also important. It comes ahead of Erdoğan’s meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov as the term president of the EU in the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Varna, scheduled for March 26. There is a European Council meeting scheduled ahead of the Varna talks on March 23, and Erdoğan does not want to face any surprises that could ruin his plans to halt the deterioration in Turkey’s relations with the EU.
In sum, it seems clear that the Erdoğan wants to see a more predictable near-term picture in Turkey’s relations with both the U.S. and the EU.