Turkey’s ‘interlocutor problem’ with the Trump administration

Turkey’s ‘interlocutor problem’ with the Trump administration

The work of a “consultation mechanism” to save Turkey-U.S. relations from a constant crisis mode, which was agreed during former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Ankara in February, has hit a snag amid conflicting public statements from the capitals. While two top Turkish officials insisted that the two countries had reached a common understanding for the withdrawal of Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Manbij towards the east of the Euphrates, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert stated that no agreement had yet been reached with the Turks.

Ankara has thus become concerned about whether Washington is preparing to pull back from a commitment to find a solution to the Manbij knot with Turkey. Once again, an imminent need for the leaders of the two countries to weigh in emerged, and the phone call between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump on March 22 was certainly an effort to clear the air.

Apart from the phone call between the two on Jan. 24 - which ended on a somewhat gloomy note when talks about Syria changed track due to Erdoğan’s raising of the Jerusalem issue - Trump sweet-talked Erdoğan in most of his interactions. But he has also failed to fulfill almost all promises regarding the U.S. relationship with the YPG, which Ankara considers the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

It is not hard to believe that when Erdoğan pressed Trump on Tillerson’s Manbij pledge, Trump probably just said “he would handle it,” as he has done many times before.

As much as Erdoğan refrains from targeting Trump publicly – instead reserving his anger for U.S. spokespeople - what Ankara has to acknowledge is that Trump himself is the source of the problem. We are talking about a president who has discredited and insulted two key positions that traditionally determine U.S. foreign policy through the firing of Tillerson and now National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.

Now that two of the officials who were personally involved in recent diplomacy with Turkey are gone, it is not clear who is going to take ownership of the mechanism regarding the three different working committees. Whoever it is, it is far from certain that they will pursue similar goals as Tillerson to ease the concerns of the Turks in Syria.

The Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs (EUR) at the State Department, which covers the Turkey file, has been the most receptive unit in the U.S. government to Ankara’s arguments on the YPG issue. However, its influence on the U.S.’s overall Syria policy has been very limited until recently. Moreover, top diplomats in the EUR Bureau are set to depart for new posts. Deputy Assistant Secretary Jonathan Cohen will serve as number two in the U.S. Permanent Representation to the U.N., while Director for Southern Europe Mark Libby is on his way to Brussels. Cohen’s position has been offered to Colonel Richard Outzen, who was serving as a member of Tillerson’s policy planning staff. It is still unclear whether Tillerson’s replacement with Mike Pompeo will affect the appointment of Outzen, who is known as a friend of Turkey.

While the State Department is in total limbo, Secretary of Defense Mattis – who has something of a reputation among Turks for understanding Ankara’s sensitivities – has in fact been the wild card. So far he has not taken any bold steps, which could symbolize a dramatic shift from the CENTCOM line on Syria.

The National Security Council, which traditionally coordinates the interagency process and formulates foreign policy, has become tragically irrelevant due to Trump’s frantic and immature actions. I would not be surprised if McMaster’s deputy, Dr. Fiona Hill, who has been the top figure at the NSC dealing with Turkey file, leaves after her boss was removed following a campaign of humiliation from the president.

Instead of the cancelled meeting between Tillerson and Çavuşoğlu, the Turkish Foreign Ministry undersecretary will meet U.S. Deputy Secretary John Sullivan in Washington next week. This meeting will be crucial for Ankara to understand whether a “common understanding” on Manbij is still on the table. Sadly, Ankara’s counterpart for this critical meeting – Sullivan – has no expertise on Turkey or Syria and does not have much of a diplomatic skillset.

Without doubt, a new factor in this new set of negotiations will be Washington’s uneasiness with Turkey’s local partners on the ground in Syria. Footage from Afrin after the capture of the city showing some members of the FSA looting local addresses raised eyebrows in Washington. Nobody should expect the U.S. to agree to incorporate such FSA figures into the Manbij Military Council as the two sides try to figure out how to phase out the YPG members.

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