Turkey contacts Russia and Iran ahead of Syria talks with US
Following an unscheduled security meeting on the evening of Feb. 6, chaired by President Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu flew to Tehran to meet his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif on Feb. 7 to discuss issues related to Syria.
All this is taking place ahead of an expected visit to Turkey by H.R. McMaster, the national Security Adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, this weekend to talk about problems between Ankara and Washington. McMaster will meet with Erdoğan’s chief foreign policy adviser and spokesman İbrahim Kalın, as well as possibly with other Turkish officials. There is also a visit to Turkey currently in sight from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, though no date has yet been announced.
The U.S. administration is worried about the possibility of unwanted clashes between soldiers of the two countries in the Syrian town of Manbij following Turkey’s ongoing military operation in the Syrian district of Afrin. Both are currently held by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist group by both Ankara and Washington. The U.S. has been using the YPG as its ground units against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), despite Turkey’s continued objections.
The visits were confirmed by officials after a statement by Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdağ, who said Turkish troops would not hesitate to fire on “people in YPG outfits,” without considering whether they may be U.S. soldiers in disguise.
Turkey’s Afrin operation has pushed the U.S. into a situation where it has to make a choice about whether to continue protecting the YPG, which is designated as terrorism-affiliated in the CIA’s World Factbook, and thus ignoring the threat perception of its NATO ally, worsening already deteriorating ties.
The diplomatic traffic also coincided with an Israeli attack on a Syrian facility near Damascus. The Syrian air force responded and the Israelis said their air defense system intercepted the response. Israel is also trying to attract Russia’s attention to the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah militias, which are getting close to its borders. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had flown to Sochi to meet Putin hours before the congress on the future of Syria was held there, sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran under the observation of the United Nations on Jan. 29-30.
Turkey has long been asking the U.S. to end its cooperation with the YPG/PKK in order to cooperate more with Ankara in Syria and Iraq against ISIL and al-Qaeda. There are other serious problems between the two sides, such as the apparent lack of legal action against Pennsylvania-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, accused of masterminding Turkey’s July 2016 coup attempt, and Turkey’s plans to purchase Russian S-400 missiles for its air defense. But the most immediate problem facing Turkish and American officials is the situation in Syria.
Kalın recently stated that Turkey wants to “rebuild trust” with the U.S. based on the shared past experience of ties between the two countries. The logical path still suggests that they will find enough common ground to decrease the tension going forward. The fact that Ankara sought to consult with Russia and Iran before this crucial set of contacts shows that all parties are carefully monitoring delicate balances regarding the Syrian civil war. The hope is that diplomacy will ultimately prevail and tension will drop.