US will have to make a choice on Turkey sooner or later
When the U.S. State Department put on hold talks with the Turkish Foreign Ministry about the status of the Syrian town of Manbij last week, some claimed that the move signaled the White House’s inclination to dump Turkey. Those were rather ambitious predictions, as it would not be easy for the U.S. to dump the only (and Muslim-populated) NATO ally in the greater Middle East from Libya to Afghanistan, the most capable NATO ally in a region covering the Mediterranean, the Balkans and the Black Sea neighboring Russia, simply over a rift in the Syria civil war.
Now it is clear from recent statements that Washington-Ankara talks were put on hold until new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in full charge and control of U.S. foreign policy, which makes sense. The talks were set up during a visit of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Turkey, but U.S. President Donald Trump removed Tillerson from office before the talks even started.
However, the move to put a hold on talks indicates something else too: There is a strong possibility that there will be revisions in U.S. foreign policy at a time when key decisions have to be taken on North Korea, on trade wars with China and the EU, on the border issue with Mexico, and on problems with Russia from cyber-intervention in U.S. domestic politics to spy wars from Ukraine and Baltics to Syria. That is the context in which Washington will have to decide on the direction to take relations with Ankara.
Troubles in Turkey-U.S. ties are not limited to disagreement over Syria, though that seems to be the hottest issue at the moment. The awaited talks are about Turkey’s demand for the U.S. to withdraw the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia from the Syrian town of Manbij to east of the river Euphrates, as pledged by the Americans. The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has for decades been waging an armed campaign against Turkey for an independent Kurdish state to be carved out of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, and the U.S. Senate’s World Wide Threat Assessment report acknowledged in February 2018 that the YPG was “the Syrian militia of the PKK.” Despite that, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has picked the YPG as its ground force partner against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), despite repeated objections from Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan.
So the problem is bigger than Manbij: It is about whether the U.S. will dump Turkey over a rift in Syria. That might be a popular step when considered together with the regression in the country’s democracy since the July 2016 military coup attempt, but it would have many potential negative consequences in other fields of cooperation. Those consequences might include more cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, as recently seen in the cases of two major agreements in the fields of defense and energy: The construction of the first nuclear power plant in Turkey and the purchase of S-400 air defense missiles that are not NATO-interoperable.
One of the key issues is whether CENTCOM will continue to dominate U.S. policy in the Middle East over politicians and the Trump administration. If there is any team to prevent the warlords from imposing their field demands onto the global politics of the world’s biggest superpower, it is the due of incoming Secretary of State Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. It is now time to wait and see which route Pompeo will choose to take at the helm of U.S. foreign policy.