The timing of Turkey’s challenge to the US
Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu said on Feb. 12 that relations between Turkey and the U.S. will either improve or get much worse.
Ankara apparently believes it is not possible to sustain relations between the two NATO allies at the current level of strain. Çavuşoğlu also said Turkey does not want to hear “more promises” from the U.S., but rather concrete steps. On Jan. 11 government spokesman Bekir Bozdağ also said Washington should “stop trying to convince Turkey” about its Syria policy and must instead start delivering.
Ankara is clearly weary of the U.S.’s promises about its ties with its local collaborators in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization not only by Turkey but also by the U.S.
Turkey objects to the weaponry and training that the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has been providing to the YPG (which has changed its name for the anti-ISIL campaign to the more harmless-sounding “Syrian Democratic Forces” upon the U.S.’s request) because of the threat it poses to Turkish targets. Ankara wants the U.S. to start taking back those arms, as promised, as ISIL has now been swept out of all major Syrian towns. Another promise that Turkey wants to be delivered is a withdrawal of the YPG militia from the Syrian town of Manbij, which Washington said would happen after it was taken from ISIL.
It is obvious from the words of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis that the Washington is not prepared to follow through with either of these vows. The U.S. has chained itself so tightly to collaboration with the YPG/PKK that the U.S. presence in Syria is dependent on this group, despite the fact that it recognizes the YPG/PKK as a terrorist organization on paper. All of this comes amid a major military operation by Turkey inside Syria, in coordination with Russia, against the YPG-held northern district of Afrin near the Turkish border.
As Turkish officials demand that the U.S. keeps its promises regarding the YPG, American officials are asking Turkey to limit its operation in Afrin. In response, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has asked U.S. President Donald Trump through the media “whether the U.S. ever put a limit on its anti-terror fight in Afghanistan or Iraq.” The U.S. has warned that the ongoing Afrin operation is distracting the attention of the YPG/PKK east of the river Euphrates, with Mattis admitting that scores of YPG militants have gone to Afrin to fight against Turkey with weapons given to them by Americans to fight against ISIL.
Shortly after Çavuşoğlu’s comments, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said the U.S. should “pull itself together” if it does not want things to get worse with Turkey.
It is important to note that all these challenging remarks from Turkey to the U.S. about the level of relations were made after the visit by U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster to Erdoğan’s Foreign and Security Policy Adviser İbrahim Kalın on Jan. 11 in Istanbul. Apparently the Turkish government was not pleased with what McMaster said in that meeting.
Çavuşoğlu is currently taking part in a meeting of anti-ISIL coalition countries in Kuwait. Indeed, Turkey is of course still an active member of that 74-member coalition. Its strategic İncirlik air base is open as part of the anti-ISIL campaign, as well as two other support bases for U.S. and other coalition flights. It also landed serious blows against ISIL during the Euphrates Shield Operation into Syria in the second half of 2016.
On his return to Ankara, Çavuşoğlu is set to host Tillerson on Jan 15. In the meantime, Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli is expected to meet Mattis in Brussels during a NATO meeting there.
Clearly the timing of remarks from Turkey to the U.S. is just as important as their content. Ankara hopes they are being heard by President Trump.