US cannot discard Turkey, not only because of Russia
After a pause of four days following the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Ankara, President Tayyip Erdoğan once again started strongly criticizing the U.S., without naming it, on Feb 20.
During his address to the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Parti) parliamentary group, Erdoğan suggested that “they say the problems will be sorted out in three or four days but nothing changes.” He did not directly refer to any specific meeting or publicly known promises, but he was clearly talking about U.S. cooperation with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). That partnership looks set to continue even after all major towns have been taken from ISIL.
Erdoğan was obviously urging the U.S. to take immediate steps, even if only symbolic, amid the ongoing Turkish military operation in Syria against the YPG-held Afrin and its environs. That “Operation Olive Branch” is continuing with indirect Russian backing, and Moscow has described the YPG as “U.S. proxy forces.”
The timing of the Turkish president’s remarks was also important. A day before, on Feb. 19 - after morning reports on a Syrian state TV station that forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime will advance on Afrin after a deal with the YPG - Erdoğan had two telephone calls: One was with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the other one was with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Presidential Spokesman İbrahim Kalın later said news about a Damascus-YPG deal was “not true” and was “propaganda.” But hours after Erdoğan’s Feb. 20 speech, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was reported as saying that a possible solution to the Afrin stand-off could be through talks between Turkey and Syria (something that Erdoğan has ruled out for the time being).
Putin seems to be pushing for Erdoğan to talk to al-Assad. Perhaps this is why Erdoğan is eager for Turkey’s NATO ally the U.S. to fulfill its promises.
U.S. persistence in continuing to cooperate with the YPG is also interesting. Tillerson had indicated in a Stanford speech last month that the ongoing ISIL threat is not the only reason for Washington’s cooperation with the YPG. He said the U.S. wants to keep the east of Syria under control in order to prevent Iranian access to western parts of Syria.
That target suggests closer cooperation with Israel, as well as with the YPG. But expecting a nationalist Kurdish militia of 30,000, no matter how well-trained, to stop pro-Iran forces from operating in Iraq and Syria, can only be a naive and expensive American military fantasy. Secondly, Iran does not need a land route to reach the west of Syria as long as the Damascus, Latakia and Beirut airports and the Tartus navy base are not under U.S. or Israeli control.
But there is another reason why the U.S. should not and actually cannot discard Turkey in order to force a costly option imposed on the Donald Trump administration by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) operatives. NATO is set to review its strategy in a summit in Brussels in July 2018. Preliminary documents suggest a new “360 degree approach,” placing greater emphasis on both the northern flank (where the protection of the Baltic region from Russian pressure is key) and on the southeast flanks and the Mediterranean region, with hubs to keep an eye on developments in the neighborhood (including terrorism, migration and civil wars).
Those targets will be very difficult to achieve without active Turkish participation. It is time for the U.S. to review its priorities and choices in this problematic part of the world.