Is ‘Rex-it’ the end of hopes for Ankara?
President Donald Trump’s long anticipated dismissal of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is undoubtedly a hiccup for Ankara. This is not necessarily because Tillerson’s named successor Mike Pompeo is likely to stymie progress made during last week’s bilateral talks to reach an agreement over the presence of the U.S.-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria’s Manbij – a longstanding source of tension between the two NATO allies. Rather, time is also a factor. To cut a deal with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Pompeo first needs to secure Senate confirmation, put together a team and prioritize the issue among other files.
There is widespread speculation in some circles that the assurances and promises given to Ankara by Tillerson might also have walked out the door with Rex-it. A key attraction of this speculation is the fact that Tillerson was the only American present in the room with President Erdoğan and Çavuşoğlu. But my sources, who are familiar with the content of the discussions, stress the concerted nature of efforts to ease Ankara’s security concerns, exacerbated by the U.S. partnership with the YPG in Syria. These efforts, they say, have the blessing of the White House.
That said, one cannot be absolutely sure who is doing what and with which kind of authority at the White House these days! National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster could also be fired soon. When (rather than if) McMaster is thrown out of Trump’s cabinet, the two key figures in Washington responsible for fixing relations will have gone.
This new era is full of uncertainties and question marks for Turkey. Although aware that this adjustment period in Washington could stall the momentum reached last month, Ankara is insisting that meetings will continue at the highest possible level among officials. A planned meeting for next week between Çavuşoğlu and Tillerson has been cancelled. But in the coming days, we may well see another Syria meeting taking place between Turkish and U.S. officials in the U.S. capital.
In the meantime, both sides are calibrating their messages to win their side of the PR battle. While Çavuşoğlu has said they have reachedan agreement with Washington for the withdrawal of YPG fighters from Manbij, the U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert has denied this understanding, insisting the two sides were still working to reach an agreement. This little episode shows that even if both sides roughly agree in principle for the YPG to withdraw to the east of the Euphrates, the implementation will remain a major problem.
The U.S. has been trying to contain the YPG crisis with Turkey by differentiating Afrin from Manbij and Manbij from the east of the Euphrates. However, Americans cannot defer a holistic approach forever. Even in a scenario where Manbij is solved, the YPG problem will inevitably linger on at different levels. This is not necessarily because of Pompeo replacing Tillerson on the other side of the table, but because there remains a huge gap between the interests of Ankara and Washington.
However, Pompeo could also hinder progress for his own personal convictions. As a right-wing politician and member of the “Tea Party” movement, which is in bed with the evangelicals, he could take a tougher stance than Tillerson in pressing Turkey to release jailed American Pastor Andrew Brunson. His suspicions of Islam, anti-Iran stance and preferment of a Saudi hegemony in the Gulf could also cloud Turkey-U.S rapprochement efforts.