Turkey, US revisit long abandoned strategic partnership
An intense, week-long series of diplomatic exchanges between Turkey and the United States has yielded a fresh mechanism tasked to resolving outstanding issues in the bilateral relationship. To this end, U.S President Donald Trump’s national security advisor H.R. McMaster met President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s chief foreign policy advisor İbrahim Kalın last weekend in Istanbul; and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli held a meeting in Brussels on Feb. 14.
The last leg of these diplomatic sessions was undertaken by U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson, who paid an important visit to the Turkish capital on Feb. 15 and 16. In Ankara, Tillerson held more than a three-hour long meeting with Erdoğan and later held a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
Following a long two-year course of troubled bilateral ties, the outcome is that Turkey and the U.S. have decided to stop the rot with a joint statement that stresses the “Turkey-U.S. strategic partnership.”
“The Republic of Turkey and the U.S., as allies and strategic partners, reaffirm their mutual and unequivocal commitment to each other’s security and defense. As Allies within NATO and strategic partners for over 65 years, both nations consider their relations as vital to furthering their shared goals and interests, as well as to the promotion of democracy, rule of law and individual freedoms throughout the world,” read the joint statement.
Revisiting the pillars of the Turkish-U.S. partnership, the joint statement also admits that certain issues need to be resolved through the establishment of what it calls “a results-oriented mechanism.”
This mechanism will be activated within the first half of March.
There are many issues to address, though it seems the disputes stemming from Syria will gain priority. The mechanism will first seek to overcome a potential conflict between Turkey and the U.S. in the Manbij area of Syria where the latter’s troops are stationed alongside the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara sees as a terror group.
To this end, Turkey has proposed a joint Turkey-U.S. control of Manbij but only after the YPG has fully withdrawn from the city to the eastern Euphrates. Tillerson did not respond to this proposal but stressed that this strategic city of Syria should be kept under the control of allied forces.
It should not be forgotten that Manbij was one of the first spots in Syria liberated from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) by the U.S.-backed YPG troops in early 2016. At that time, the U.S. administration had promised Turkey that YPG elements would be pulled back to the eastern Euphrates once Manbij was freed from the jihadists. Unfortunately, this promise was never fulfilled.
It can therefore be said that Turkey and the U.S. are now addressing one of the core elements of strain in their ties. During the two years of strain, the U.S. has been training, equipping and arming the YPG, which has control of approximately a quarter of the entire Syrian territory, and could seek a form of autonomy.
The YPG has become an existential threat for Turkey, which is why the Turkish military launched “Operation Olive Branch” in Syria’s Afrin district and announced that Manbij was next on the list.
In any case, it is positive to hear from both sides that they still call each other strategic partners and allies and understand that problems can be resolved within the spirit of the longstanding alliance. The warming of ties also underlines that the two countries have a lot of common interests in Syria, in counter-terrorism and other security-related issues in the Middle East and beyond.
As recently observed, the deterioration of the Turkish-U.S. alliance is not to the benefit of either side.