Turkey: The game-maker or spoiler in Syria?

Turkey: The game-maker or spoiler in Syria?

Last week marked quite a surge in diplomatic traffic between Turkish and American high-level officials. Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işik met Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on the sidelines of the NATO Defense Ministerial Meeting in Brussels. The next day, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joe Dunford, met with his Turkish counterpart, Gen. Hulusi Akar, at the İncirlik Air Base, which is currently serving as home to warplanes of the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Two days later, Turkish PM Binali Yıldırım and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met in Germany on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. All these encounters were the first of their kind after President Donald Trump took office. 

These “government-to-government” meetings were topped by another interesting visit by heavyweight Republican Senator John McCain – a loud critic of Trump, by the way – to Ankara on Monday to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. McCain’s interest in the fight against ISIL has deeper practical layers since he chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. And it is worth underlining his second stop after Ankara was Riyadh. We later learned that in the same tour he secretively went to the Kurdish canton Kobane Syria before coming to Ankara. In fact he became the first American lawmaker to travel to the Kurdish controlled area which is a huge matter of concern for Turkey.

The AKP government’s spokesman, Numan Kurtulmuş, suggested the recent progress in bilateral talks “boded well,” while Yıldırım went further and said, “We are opening a new page with the U.S. administration; they call it ‘new day.’”
The Turkish side has high expectations from the “new day” rhetoric Pence used in the context of Turkey-U.S. ties at his meeting with Yıldırım. However, according to far-right populist American news network Breitbart News, which was managed by Stephen K. Bannon until he became chief strategist first for the Trump campaign and then for the White House, that language appears not to be limited to ties to Turkey. A Breitbart article on the matter – dated Feb. 20 – reminded its readers that following his in-person meeting with Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the president for referring to their new cooperative relationship as a “new day.”

For Turkey, the big question is how to turn this “new day” rhetoric into actions quickly in the context of Syria so that Ankara’s proposal to liberate Raqqa from ISIL militants without the involvement of the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) will somehow gain the upper hand in Washington. The words of former CIA chief David Petraeus at the Munich Security Conference describing the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as the cousin of the PKK is quite something if remembered that the Barack Obama administration always chose to make a distinction between the PKK and the PYD – at least publicly! 

Petraeus also implied that Turkey’s suggestions on Raqqa are taken very seriously. After all, Petraeus was initially considered as a candidate for the secretary of state and national security adviser jobs by Trump. Moreover, Petraeus is known for his close working relationship with Trump’s new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. On the other hand, even McCain praised the appointment of McMaster to replace Michael Flynn. While many in Washington’s diplomatic circles regard McMaster as a perfect fit for the job, the forced farewell of Flynn is possibly a big loss for Ankara given the allegations of lobbying links in American press. Only days after Trump’s election victory, Flynn had penned an article titled “Our ally Turkey is in crisis and needs our support,” in which he argued Fethullah Gülen was a radical Islamist and that the U.S. should not provide him safe haven.

Hence the “new day” is full of gray areas for Turkey. However, for the time being, it seems that recent top-level coordination meetings between the two countries, in addition to the efforts of U.S. Ambassador John Bass, are paying off in the sense that after such a long time, Turkey’s voice on Syria is being truly heard and considered earnestly in Washington. American military officers on the ground still argue that the YPG is the most capable force that can facilitate an attack to liberate Raqqa. Trump will have the final say after the Pentagon presents him with a plan to redefine the country’s Syria strategy, probably next week. Undoubtedly, his decision will depend on a combination of facts on the ground and what Turkey has to offer to replace the YPG. 

Can the U.S. afford to lose their heretofore best fighting partner while discussing an increase in the number of their troops in Syria? A high-level Turkish diplomat told me once, “Let them debate whether Turkey is a game-maker while we spoil the games of others.” We will find out soon whose game is about to be spoiled.