US support to PKK actual irritant to Ankara, not S-400
“I advise you to open Pentagon’s website and check the 2020 budget for Iraq and Syria. You will see a budget earmarked for C4 explosives to be used in the fight against terrorism. You don’t fight terrorism with C4 explosives; you use C4 if you want to do terror,” a Turkish official told me when I was in Washington last week for a Turkish-U.S. conference.
“What does it tell us?” I asked. “The PKK tells the Americans: ‘We fought DAESH [ISIL], we lost our men in this fight; give us whatever we want,’ ” the official replied.
The serious blow dealt to ties with Pentagon as a result of Turkish refusal in 2003 to let U.S. soldiers pass through Turkey to attack Iraq is being retaliated. This refusal left a deep mark on the U.S. military establishment; they cannot get over it. “The U.S. military keeps saying ‘injustice was made to us; we will never forget it.’ But they need to forget it,” said Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ, the president of the Turkish-American Business Council.
What this incident means to the Americans, the current U.S. assistance to Kurdish armed forces in Syria means the same to Ankara. It is seen as a direct support to the illegal PKK, a U.S.-designated terror organization. Ankara says, and the U.S. no longer contests, that the YPG is the PKK’s wing in Syria.
This is leaving a deep wound on the Turkish side. This open military support to the PKK vindicates decades-old suspicions in Ankara on U.S. intentions in its relations with different Kurdish groups in the region ever since the Gulf War.
Add to that, the conviction — justified or not — that part of the U.S. establishment helped flourish FETÖ, which is believed to have staged the coup attempt in 2016, and all this consolidates the belief in Ankara that the U.S. establishment is against the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, but also against the Turkish state/establishment, even if the latter harbors secularists who are not exactly supportive of all the current government policies.
The frustration and anger in Ankara is exacerbated as its centuries-old defense reflexes are coded to manage threats from its neighbor Russia, with which it had fought nearly a dozen wars in history, not from the U.S., with which it has historically had good ties and shared a relationship of alliance.
In other words, Russian support to the PKK would create less shockwaves in comparison to the U.S. support.
Within this framework, the Turkish government feels it has a few options left other than counterbalancing the U.S. “hostility” with Russian ties.
This brings us to Turkey’s decision to purchase the S-400 anti-ballistic defense system.
Before the meeting of Turkish Finance and Treasury Minister Berat Albayrak with U.S. President Donald Trump last week, I would have likened the developments in the S-400 issue to a train crash in the coming. Everyone on both sides, with the exception of Turkish top leadership, was ringing alarm bells that the delivery of the system would mean a definite break in relations; something the Turkish economy will not be able to handle. And it is this latter point that seems to have pushed Ankara to be more accommodating. The news in certain media outlets that the purchased S-400 could be deployed in a third country has not been denied.
The fact that an adviser to the U.S. president traveled to Moscow right after the Albayrak-Trump meeting was interpreted as part of a trilateral traffic of ideas to solve the issue. There are rumors that Fiona Hill, a senior director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council and a name that is also very familiar with Turkish issues, went to Moscow to convince the Russians on a separate formula.
How to reach $75 billion trade
Meanwhile, the fact that the two countries aim to increase their trade volume to $75 billion also suggests that this might come as part of an understanding over the S-400s. Even though working groups at relevant ministries will be set up to see the potential areas, the target of raising the trade volume from the current $20 plus billion to $75 billion is seen too ambitious, suggesting that this can only be reached through a deal involving a Turkish purchase from the U.S. aerospace or military industry.
But even if the S-400 issue was solved, followed by other irritants like the Halkbank case or the detention of U.S. missions’ Turkish personnel getting out of the way, the U.S. support to the PKK, which Turkey sees as an existential threat, will continue to poison relations. And with that on the agenda all the time, the current lack of trust that are at the center of all problems in Turkish-U.S. relations will continue creating new problems.