Perception or strategy differences?
Turkey and the United States have some serious perception problems. Even though the two countries might look at the same spot, what they see at that particular spot appears to be totally dissimilar. A plausible question might be “Which United States?” as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the American Special Forces have often been very much like two adversaries in regards to their operations in Syria.
The American Special Forces have been supporting the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of Syria as an ally in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Special Forces have been training the PYD’s so-called People’s Protection Units, also known as the People’s Defense Units, (YPG). Which party does the CIA support in the Syria quicksand? That depends on time and place, explain experts, stressing that American intelligence was not that happy or comfortable with the Special Forces-PYD love affair. For Turkey, on the other hand, nowadays the PYD is no different than a Syrian extension of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the YPG no different than the PKK’s so-called People’s Defense Forces (HPG). Thus, for Ankara fighting the PYD and the YPG is no different than fighting the separatist terrorist PKK and its HPG. Turkey’s PYD position can best be described with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s frequently repeated “through collaborating in the fight against a terrorist organization a terrorist organization cannot become a lesser evil and must be dealt with as well” declarations.
Thus, the U.S. might be a bit cross-eyed on the PYD issue. One section of the U.S. administration and security apparatus might consider it a vital ally, the other as a not so trustworthy and if necessary expendable local element. Yet, even the “we have limited cooperation” statement by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after a meeting with his Russian counterpart demonstrated vividly that Turkey and the United States are not even cross-eyed on the PYD issue, but have totally different approaches produced by two different strategies.
While the United States might not support Kurdish statehood aspirations, so far it clearly demonstrated that it could enter into deals with the PYD (often the U.S. has been accused of discreetly aiding the PKK as well) in a manner that made Kurds believe the U.S. might be supportive of their statehood dreams. Anyhow, from Woodrow Wilson’s famous 14-Point Declaration to the failed Sevres Treaty to the refusal of Washington to approve the Lausanne Treaty recognizing Turkey’s current borders, was not there a suspicion among Turks of the Americans’ intentions?
Turkey has the right and the duty to defend its territory and people against all attacks, irrespective of where such attacks might come from. Now Turkey believes it has been targeted on at least three fronts, all aimed at achieving the country’s disintegration one way or the other. The Fethullah Gülen threat, as difficult as it might be for Turkey’s allies to recognize, was one that traumatized the entire nation with a failed July 15 coup attempt, using Turkish tanks, jets and other fighting power to attack Turks and Turkish institutions, including parliament. The leader of that group is an Islamist old man who has been living in the United States since 1997 as a “Lawful Permanent Resident.” Naturally, as for obvious reasons it was difficult for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to accept why someone could not be extradited if the political authority wanted it, or why a court verdict was needed, the issue has already turned into a potential time bomb in Turkish-American relations. When and if the federal court handling the extradition request – if sufficient evidence could be collected and the process reaches that stage – decides against extradition, I cannot imagine the furor at Ankara’s extravagant palace. Such a development would be considered firm evidence demonstrating the CIA support for the Gülenists, as well as for the July 15 coup attempt.
Operation Euphrates Shield was not and cannot be expected to be limited to rooting out ISIL from Syria’s areas bordering Turkey. While that was one of the targets, the bigger and more important target for Turkey was to deliver a strong message to the PYD that Turkey would not let it move toward establishing statehood and would take every possible measure to not allow a Kurdish state carved out from its territory. This might not appear something of immediate worry for the United States but is an existential issue for the Turks.
A third and less important issue might be the Cyprus problem. American Deputy Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland was also involved in finding a way out of the guarantees deadlock in Cyprus. Ideas have been floated, including one of creating a multinational gendarme for the island to a guarantee system subjected to Security Council endorsement before any sort of intervention could be undertaken. There were even suggestions of offering Turkey a leased military base on the island. From the American perspective settling Greek Cypriot worries and meeting their key demand of leaving not a single Turkish soldier on the island might be plausible but neither can Ankara accept such a deal, nor can Turkish Cypriots place their security in anyone else’s mercy other than an effective and physical Turkish guarantee.
Turkey cannot have an option like joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and such because of these differences in perception, perhaps contradicting interests, but Turkey’s allies must also realize that it is not only in Turkey’s interest to keep Turkey anchored to the West, despite the current oppressive administrative mentality in Ankara.