Tillerson’s visit averted a break-up in US-Turkish ties: Senior advisor to Erdoğan

Tillerson’s visit averted a break-up in US-Turkish ties: Senior advisor to Erdoğan

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Tillerson’s visit averted a break-up in US-Turkish ties: Senior advisor to Erdoğan

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit last week to Ankara, where he met President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, averted a break in U.S.-Turkey ties, according to a senior advisor to Erdoğan. 

“It was an earnest visit, as Tillerson was making every effort he could to try to reach an understanding regarding Turkey’s concerns,” Professor Gülnur Aybet told the Hürriyet Daily News.

What is the state of US–Turkey ties after the visit?

Until the visit, U.S.–Turkey relations could be described as frustrating, and on the part of the U.S. inconsistent, as there were promises given to us on various occasions since last May that were not fulfilled. The visit was important because it was an earnest and honest visit, with Tillerson making every effort he could to try to reach an understanding in which Turkey’s concerns and frustrations could be met by the American side.

This shows us that both parties really want to work together to avert a complete breakdown in relations. It is fair to say that we were heading towards a collision and that has been averted. This is also evident in the content of the joint press statement issued after the meeting of Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Tillerson.

The establishment of two working groups to deal with two separate issues is very significant, showing the determination of both sides to avoid misunderstandings in what has become a very complicated situation. It’s important to have two different working groups because they need different areas of expertise. If we can proceed in this manner I think because they will thrash out the deeper details of these contentious issues and we could achieve something.

What is the criteria of the “results-oriented mechanism” mentioned in the joint statement?

“Results-oriented” means that these working groups are not just talking shops. It means they will work towards resolving issues and will continue to work until they resolve the issues to the satisfaction of both parties. 

Are we on the same page as the U.S. in Syria?

We are on the same page as far as Turkey’s national security concerns are concerned. The U.S. and all our NATO allies have reiterated that they understand Turkey’s absolute right to defend itself when there are direct attacks against its people and its territory. 

But has the U.S. reached the point of saying it will stop providing weapons to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and end cooperation with them?

This is precisely one of the promises they have not fulfilled and these are the details that need to be worked out towards a results-oriented approach. We will continue working until results are achieved to the satisfaction of both sides. This does not mean that we had to resolve all our outstanding issues during this one visit but we have taken an important step.

There are reports that Turkey proposed deploying a joint Turkey-U.S. force in Manbij after the YPG moves to the east of the Euphrates. The U.S., meanwhile, has proposed opening a corridor from Afrin to Kobane for the YPG to leave the city center.

As Tillerson said at the press conference, the priority on the agenda is Manbij. There are various options that will be discussed but it is not appropriate to disclose these options at present. The Afrin issue is very sensitive and the main reason we launched “Operation Olive Branch” is because the YPG/PKK has increasingly been using Afrin as a launching pad for attacks against us, as well as using it to infiltrate terrorists who can then cross the border to Turkey or lodge themselves in areas close to the border. The U.S. side absolutely understands Turkey’s military objectives there, so I am sure they will come up with options to address our security concerns regarding to Afrin.

Is there a lack of confidence in Turkey behind the U.S. preference to choose the YPG over Turkey?

We have put the question of why the Americans chose to partner with a terror organization rather than their ally, which has the second largest army in NATO, to the Americans since last May. We have never gotten a clear answer. We said fighting one terror organization using another terror organization will be detrimental not just to our security but also to their security. We offered to take Raqqa from DAESH through Turkish forces working with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). But they preferred to go forward in the Raqqa operation with the YPG.

This is now the past. With regard to the future, the security situation on the ground, and the coalition against DAESH, all of this is linked to a political settlement in Syria that will end the war. There, the U.S. and Turkey again have overlapping common interests. We want to see a political settlement. The closer we get to that settlement, the U.S. is not going to be able to sustain the argument that it needs to continue arming a certain group because the war in Syria is over and DAESH will be defeated.

It seems that the Americans have identified certain groups that Turkey choose to work with in Syria as jihadist. Is that why they have been unwilling to cooperate with Turkey?

I have never heard such an argument from any American official. You may occasionally read such things in the foreign media. Officially, the excuse they have given us for this unfortunate decision of partnering with the YPG was because they thought the YPG was trained and ready and the FSA was not.

Containing Russia and Iran is also believed to be the main motivation shaping U.S. policy in Syria. Could it be that Washington does not trust Turkey due to its close relations with Russia and Iran?

The U.S. sees Turkey as a NATO ally and sees its role in Astana and Sochi processes as a positive one. Russia is probably one of the more important players with leverage over the regime. When a political settlement is reached within the U.N. framework you need the opposition to come to an agreement with the regime in one form or another. 

Some observers suspect a lack of coordination in Washington and argue that what Tillerson said in Turkey may not be implemented by the U.S. military?

All aspects of the U.S. government are concerned that they should not be on a collision course with a NATO ally and all of them look very positively at results-oriented mechanisms.

What aspect of Turkey’s decision to purchase the S-400 missile defense systems from Russia will be discussed in the working groups? The U.S. administration looks set to introduce sanctions against countries dealing with the Russian defense industry.

That decision and implementation have not yet gone forward. If in this working group they bring up the S-400 issue it will be to avert anything that could be detrimental to bilateral ties. The purpose of these working groups is to avoid such detrimental factors. 

It is not about convincing Turkey to abandon the purchase.

Turkey is going ahead with the purchase. We have already struck the deal. But we want to build our own air defense capability. The S-400 system meets our requirements for the time being. But that does not mean this is the end of the road for us. We are also involved in explorations with some of our European allies on this matter. 

What about the separate working group on legal issues? What will that do differently? These problems seem to stem from having different legal interpretations.

Recently we have seen more FBI investigations into Gülen schools. We are seeing from their law enforcement officials a realization about the kind of damage that this organization is doing to the U.S. There is also a political side to this. It would be good if the U.S. could show publicly that it is taking this matter seriously, if it could show how much gravity it is according to the sensitivities of the Turkish public.

Tillerson’s visit averted a break-up in US-Turkish ties: Senior advisor to ErdoğanWho is Gülnur Aybet?

Gülnur Aybet is Senior Advisor to the President of the Republic of Turkey and professor of international relations at Yildiz Technical University, Istanbul.

She held academic posts at the University of Kent, and the University of Nottingham, in England and Bahçeşehir and Bilkent Universities in Turkey. She held senior research fellowships at St Antony’s Oxford University, Johns Hopkins University and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Aybet has managed several research projects across the world including on state building in Bosnia, Syrian refugees in Turkey, and NATO. In 2009 she was nominated one of the most powerful Muslim women in the United Kingdom by The Times.

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