Common sense urgently needed in Turkey-US ties
Needless to say, this week is set to witness some very important meetings between Turkey and the United States. The defense ministers of the two countries, Nurettin Canikli and James Mattis, will meet in Brussels on the margins of a NATO summit a day before U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is due in Ankara for talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
The Turkish government has been sending some very strong messages in recent days, urging U.S. officials to say something new in upcoming encounters with their Turkish counterparts.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly implied that Turkey would not care whether American troops are also hit in a potential military attack against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria’s Manbij province. The way he spoke rose concerns that Turkey is due to take the risk of armed clashes with U.S. troops in Syria.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s rhetoric has been a little calmer, urging the U.S. that the course of this week’s meetings could either fix Turkey-U.S. ties or result in their collapse. He has said Turkey is in favor of a continued alliance “based on mutual trust,” calling on the U.S. to take “concrete steps” to this end.
Speaking in Kuwait, Tillerson once again acknowledged Turkey’s security concerns on its borders but at the same time expressed U.S. annoyance about developments in northwestern Syria.
Turkey’s demands from the U.S. are clear: First, it wants to see an immediate withdrawal of YPG militants from Manbij to the east of Euphrates, as previously promised by past and present U.S. administrations. Second, it wants the U.S. to cease its military and political cooperation with the YPG, saying the group is a terror organization affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In line with this, Turkey has also called on the U.S. to take back weapons already delivered to the YPG.
Initial messages coming from Washington do not reflect any kind of change in U.S. policy in Syria. It is also known that U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster fell a long way short of convincing Erdoğan’s chief foreign policy advisor İbrahim Kalın over U.S. actions in the field.
On the contrary, the Pentagon’s 2018 budget stipulates a continued engagement with the YPG. U.S. officials frequently recall that the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is not fully over and that precautions need to be taken to avoid any jihadist resurgence, especially on the Syrian-Iraqi border.
For Turkey, however, this is a just an excuse for the U.S. to prolong its military presence in that particular part of Syria. Turkish government officials have repeatedly claimed that the U.S.-YPG alliance is not really fighting against ISIL there.
With all this being the case, it would be surprising to see a breakthrough in troubled Turkish-U.S. ties if Tillerson fails to say something new in Ankara, thus changing the current context.
Of course, Turkey-U.S. tensions are a messy, complicated affair and Syria is not the only source of trouble. The extradition of Fethullah Gülen, rumors that Turkish state lender Halkbank might face multibillion dollar sanctions, and ongoing legal cases against each other’s nationals are all adding to the long list of problematic areas between the two countries.
Turkey seems to be ready to re-define its relationship with the U.S., abandoning its longstanding strategic partnership with Washington. Such a break in ties will certainly disadvantage both sides, especially at a time when the dust has not yet settled in the Middle East.
Diplomacy is the only way to allow common sense to prevail. Both Ankara and Washington need to focus on long-term strategic interests and Tillerson’s visit should constitute the first opportunity for such a conversation. After that, U.S. President Donald Trump should also engage in a more serious way to resolve this standoff with its longstanding ally.