A train crash between Turkey and the US put on hold
The bewildering high-level diplomatic traffic of the past week to overcome the highly contentious positions between Turkey and the U.S. over Syria is an indicator that the Donald Trump administration may be more serious than before about finding a solution to Ankara’s security concerns.
A short visit by H. R. McMaster, the national security advisor to Trump, to Istanbul on Feb. 11 to meet his Turkish counterpart, Presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın, which the White House tried hard to avoid publicizing, was taken as an affirmation of a search for a new vision by Ankara.
However, after talks with McMaster, prior to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced to the world that for his government relations between the two long-time allies were at a “make or break” point. What’s more, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan implied that Turkey would give the U.S. an “Ottoman slap,” while expressing frustration over statements by U.S. army members who said they would “respond aggressively” if Turkey hits Manbij in Syria. Last but not least, Tillerson, before boarding his plane to Ankara, almost exposed himself to ridicule by saying that the U.S. has “never given heavy arms” to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria so there is nothing to take back.
None of those statements could be taken as promising signs that there was still hope to avert a train crash in Turkey-U.S. ties.
Reports following a bilateral meeting between the defense ministers of the two countries on the sidelines of a NATO meeting in Brussels on Feb. 15 further complicated the picture. According to Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli’s account, while talking about U.S. intentions to detach the YPG from its ideological godfather, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Mattis – if he was not misinterpreted – suggested that they could even make the two fight each other. Mattis’ suggestion was immediately labeled as “ludicrous” by the Turkish side, which has long argued that the PKK and the YPG are inseparable.
Just hours after the Mattis-Canikli meeting, Tillerson met Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in an unusual setup, with no translator or note-taker present in the room. It was not clear whether the Turks pushed for such a set up – in which Çavuşoğlu did the translation for Erdoğan – or whether Tillerson decided for it. The U.S. media has been quick to criticize Tillerson for breaking protocol by going to such a critical meeting alone.
The next day presented a peculiarly optimistic picture in Ankara. There we saw Tillerson and Çavuşoğlu almost completing each other’s sentences in front of the cameras, while announcing that the countries have “come to terms” to normalize ties. Both politicians referred to Manbij, the Syrian town on the west bank of the Euphrates River, as the main priority area to work on. Manbij is currently controlled by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is largely composed of YPG fighters.
Tillerson’s remarks at the joint press conference were full of powerful promises, as he underlined that the U.S. and Turkey would no longer be “acting alone” in Syria. Going forward it will be interesting to watch how Washington is going to juggle a common vision with the Turks in Syria while still relying on the human resources of the YPG Kurds on the battlefield. Tillerson defined Manbij as a strategic spot for U.S. interests in Syria and said it should be under the control of the global coalition.
The reported Turkish proposal to push the YPG out of Manbij and in their place station Turkish troops together with U.S. troops will be a hard one for the Trump administration to sell to U.S. commanders on the ground. Not only would this mean a dramatic shift in the U.S. warfare strategy, there is also little trust in the Turkish military at CENTCOM, which has been running the show in Syria.
No matter how tough the negotiations will be, at this stage both sides committing themselves to force the limits of diplomacy is good news. We should now expect Ankara to hold off on a possible attack on Manbij while Turkish and American officials sit down to narrow the gap between them in the coming weeks and months.
For Washington, the release of at least some of the U.S. nationals and employees of U.S. missions in Turkey, who have been arrested under the prolonged state of emergency, is a vital part of any normalization package. In the Feb. 16 press conference Çavuşoğlu repeated a few times that they “acknowledge the concerns” of the U.S. side for their citizens and staff. This could be a strong signal that there will soon be some developments in the cases of individuals like Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who has been in jail in Turkey since 2016.
But perhaps that is just my wishful thinking, because as I was finishing this piece I learned that my Turkish-German colleague Deniz Yücel was finally released from prison in Turkey. The release came just one day after a meeting between Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had made Yücel’s case a priority.
Now we will see whether the Turks and Americans will be able to align their own priorities or not. We are probably now at the last exit before a train crash.