The US and Turkey: Finding a way or making one
The weeks-long escalation in the skirmish of words between Turkish and U.S. officials entered a wait-and-see phase after a Feb. 14 statement by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
He was speaking in Amman, Jordan, a day before arriving in Ankara for talks with top Turkish officials, which could be crucially important for the future of Turkey-U.S. relations. Tillerson is scheduled to meet President Tayyip Erdoğan late on Feb. 15 and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on the morning of Feb. 16.
On Feb. 11, U.S. President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser Herbert McMaster was in Istanbul to talk to Erdoğan’s Foreign and Security Policy Adviser İbrahim Kalın, in an attempt to address the rift between Ankara and Washington. That rift has particularly grown recently because of the U.S. collaboration in Syria with a militant group that Turkey designates as a terrorist organization. Despite a joint statement underlining that Turkey and the U.S. are NATO allies, the strength of statements coming from the Turkish side after the visit indicated that Ankara was not at all satisfied by what McMaster told Kalın.
The first reaction came from government spokesman Bekir Bozdağ, who demanded that the U.S. stop trying to convince Turkey to bow to the U.S. line in Syria and first deliver on earlier promises. Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu then said relations with the U.S. will “either get better” after Tillerson’s visit “or get much worse.” Then Erdoğan said on Jan. 13 that Americans who threaten Turkey (in reference to two U.S. generals who spoke alongside militants in Syria’s Manbij) “must have never heard about the ‘Ottoman slap.’” He again warned that U.S. officers should stay clear of People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants because Turkish forces would soon be shooting at those militants.
The Worldwide Threat Assessment report submitted to the U.S. Congress by National Intelligence Director Daniel Coats on Feb. 13 acknowledged that the YPG is the “Syrian militia of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).” The PKK is also designated as a terrorist group by the U.S., having launched an armed campaign for independence against Turkey in 1984, in which over 40,000 people have been killed so far.
Turkey has long objected to the U.S.’s partnership with the YPG against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), saying weapons and training provided by the Americans to the YPG/PKK will ultimately be used against Turkey. The U.S. owes its uninvited presence in Syria to the YPG/PKK militia and it does not want to break its ties with them, but at the same time it also does not want to lose Turkey.
Tillerson’s remarks on Feb. 14 slightly cooled tension before the key meetings. “Turkey is still an important NATO ally of the United States,” he said. “We need to find a way to continue working in the same direction. We are committed to the same outcomes in Syria.”
“Find a way to continue working in the same direction” is a remark that resembles the famous quote of Carthaginian leader Hannibal as he advanced on Rome over 2,000 years ago: “I will either find a way or make one.”
It also indicates just how serious the current situation between the two allies is.