The US: From ally to security threat for Turkey?
Relations between NATO allies the United States and Turkey are descending into a schizophrenic and dangerous spiral, with the potential to trigger a domino effect in the Middle East and beyond.
The number of crucial meetings in the coming days aiming to avert a major crisis between Ankara and Washington has just increased from two to three. U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster will visit Istanbul for talks with Presidential Security and Foreign Policy Adviser İbrahim Kalın while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit Ankara to meet Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. It has also been announced that Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli will meet U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in Brussels next week.
Meanwhile, U.S. military officials have escalated their warnings to Turkey into barely veiled threats. Recent examples are the words of two ranking U.S. officers who did not rule out striking Turkish soldiers if deemed necessary to protect their local partners in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Lt. Gen. Paul Funk described the partner force that retook Raqqa from ISIL as “heroes.” On paper he was referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but that is little more than a ghost name for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Washington also designates a terrorist group. The other officer, Maj Gen. Jamie Jarrard, who is also serving in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in charge of the anti-ISIL coalition, said they were “proud of their positions” there and “want to make sure everybody knows it.”
Their positions are in the Syrian town of Manbij. It had been under the occupation of ISIL before being taken by U.S.-backed YPG militia forces in 2017. The U.S. had publicly promised Turkey that YPG militants would withdraw to the east of the Euphrates river from the town, which is located on the west bank of the Euphrates. Turkey is concerned that a “corridor” under PKK control will be formed along its borders to the YPG/PKK-held Syria town of Afrin.
The generals’ statements on Jan. 7 came after a remark by Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdağ on Jan. 4 in which he said that if Turkey decides to hit the YPG in Manbij it would not be able to differentiate between them and American soldiers under YPG insignias. In a speech at parliament on Jan. 6, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan also repeated that the YPG should be evacuated from Manbij, warning that otherwise the next target of Ankara’s ongoing military operation in Afrin could be Manbij.
When asked about Turkey’s objection to the U.S.’s partnership with the YPG, Lt. Gen Funk simply said: “Well, OK.” Such remarks were reported along with pictures provided to the media of U.S. soldiers dug in trenches watching out for any attack from their NATO ally Turkey against their YPG “heroes.”
Clearly, the picture is getting more tangled every day. But we can draw a couple of assumptions: Either CENTCOM (or more generally the Pentagon) is acting like a confederal or feudal entity within the U.S. government, dictating its own terms and policies on President Trump, or Trump is trying to play for time and is not telling the whole truth to Erdoğan.
Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) are already suspicious about the U.S. being behind Turkey’s July 2016 coup attempt. These suspicions are exacerbated by the fact that Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher accused of masterminding the plot, continues to live freely in Pennsylvania and no legal steps have been taken against him so far, despite repeated Turkish demands. On top of that, U.S. soldiers are now openly taking sides with an organization that the U.S. government sees as a terrorist group against a country that their government sees as an ally, one of the strongest allies in NATO. Is this normal?
In Turkish eyes, the perception of the U.S. being a reliable friend and ally against security threats is giving way into the perception of the U.S. being a security threat itself.
Perhaps it is now time for the U.S. administration to think about Turkey’s ongoing plans to purchase Russian-made S-400 missiles in this context.