Turkey’s outcry falls on deaf ears in Washington

Turkey’s outcry falls on deaf ears in Washington

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to give a green light to liberate the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stronghold of Raqqa in cooperation with a Syrian Kurdish militia came as a blow to Turkey-U.S. ties ahead of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to the White House next week. Now, policy experts on both sides are discussing whether the two countries have hit a nadir in ties with the United States getting ready to provide heavy weaponry to the YPG, whose ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are no secret to anyone with an average IQ. Frankly, nobody really remembers the last time relations between the two countries were impeccable. There has always been some form of tension, mostly because of conflicting national interests in our wider region. “There has never been a golden age in Turkish-American relations” is a phrase Turkey watchers like returning to these days. 

However, the talk of the town in Washington is that there is no way things will get better in the foreseeable future with such huge gaps between the basic positions of two allies on key issues. Furthermore, almost everyone in the U.S. capital has a tendency to evaluate everything Turkey says or does through the prism of Erdoğan, whose name is often cited alongside that of Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. For the U.S. establishment, the image of Turkey under Erdoğan’s rule is a country which has proved to be unreliable, unpredictable and openly unwilling to play by the rules of the Western world.

But wait a minute. Wasn’t it Donald Trump who came to power by beating the U.S. establishment with pledges of radically changing the American political landscape? And was it not Ankara that was almost cheering for “Trump Reis” against the American political elite? Indeed, the first 110-something days of Trump has been nothing but a drama of how his administration has struggled to take on the system. Trump’s latest move to completely hand over the Syria and Iraq dossiers to the Pentagon, according to the Turks, showed that the remains of the Obama bureaucracy is still in charge. However, it is not that simple. It goes way back before Obama. 

There is an undeniable CENTCOM factor behind the recent crisis with Turkey. Look at all the U.S. generals who have their stamp on the recent executive order signed by Trump to arm the YPG: Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and CENTCOM Commander Joseph Votel. All of these figures have undertaken critical posts at CENTCOM especially during the war in Iraq in 2003, which means these gentlemen do not have fond memories of the Turkish military because Ankara did not permit U.S. forces to attack Iraq from its territory. 

Since then the CENTCOM developed a working relationship with Kurds on the ground, first in Iraq and recently in Syria. They do not trust the Turks as much as they trust Kurds. When coupled with immediate desire to win the battlefield against ISIL, the Turkish objection that “the U.S. should not be supplying weapons to a terrorist organization” fell on deaf ears in Washington. 

Despite calls from the opposition to cancel his appointment with Trump, Erdoğan is set to stick to the plans for May 16. Erdoğan will rather come to the U.S. capital and tell Trump to reverse his decision to arm the YPG according to his own accounts. At this point, in fact, the Turkish side needs to be a lot more creative than that. Key people in the U.S. administration were well aware of the cost of arming YPG yet they called the shots. 

Before it is too late, Ankara should broaden the scope of its Syria vision and start talking about post-Raqqa plans. After the liberation of Raqqa, the U.S. inevitably will have to come to terms with the nature of the relationship between the YPG and the PKK – which is a designated terrorist organization under U.S. law – before taking any further steps that might lead to the creation of a PKK-affiliated semi-state. 

In order to be at the negotiating table for post-conflict Syria and have an upper hand, Turkey will have to develop a more sophisticated and comprehensive strategy than simply launching an operation against Sinjar or bombing YPG targets inside Syria. Clearly such a strategy cannot be contemplated without addressing our very own Kurdish question in Turkey.