This article was published in Arab News on February 19, 2018.
Turkey-US train crash has been avoided — for now
With a view to lowering the tension in Turkish-American relations, US National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added Turkey to their tour of the Middle East last week. One of several complicated problems between Turkey and the US is Ankara’s declared intention to expand its present military operation in the Syrian province of Afrin to another Syrian province, Idlib, where there are US troops. The Americans provide weapons, ammunition and training to the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Before his visit to Turkey on Thursday last week, Tillerson said in Beirut that the US did not deliver heavy weapons to YPG fighters; therefore there are none to take back. This contradicted earlier statements by US officials that said the US was keeping strict records of the weapons supplied to the YPG and that they would be recovered after Daesh was defeated. Few in Turkey considered these US promises realistic, but nobody expected they would be denied so blatantly.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu contributed to raising the tension by stating that the talks with the US would be on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. The US avoided an escalation and the visits did not end up with a break; instead the sides agreed to set up a “results-oriented mechanism” before mid-March. Reuters, quoting an unnamed Turkish official, reported that, during the talks with Tillerson, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed expelling YPG fighters from Manbij and instead deploying Turkish and American troops in that city. Tillerson said the US would genuinely consider it.
Turkey believes that the US does not try hard enough to understand its worries. Ankara expects America to assess the facts from Turkey’s perspective and adopt its priorities, yet the US understands clearly enough Turkey’s policy both in Syria and on several other issues. The main cause of the tension is not the lack of understanding: It is the incompatibility of their national interests and the differences in their priorities.
Turkey’s priority is to dismantle the administrative entities that the local people of the northern provinces of Syria have set up amid coercion by the YPG, while the American priority is promoting the Kurdish cause, which will serve two purposes.
The visits to Ankara by two high-level American figures were originally meant to bridge the gap between these two NATO allies, but the press release issued afterwards is rich in kind words but less generous in terms of concrete steps to be taken.
First, it will push for the autonomy of a Kurdish region in the north of Syria. This position was explained in a report to the Senate by the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency. NSA Director Dan Coats said during his presentation of the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community: “The YPG, which is the PKK’s Syrian militia, probably will seek some form of autonomy in northern Syria.”
This sentence is an acknowledgement of the link between the listed PKK terrorist organization and the YPG, which is supported by the US. In other words, the US administration recognizes the PKK as a terror organization, but continues to support its Syrian militia. The sentence also exposes the US assessment — and its expectation — that something is in the offing for the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria. This is a most disturbing nightmare for Turkey.
Second, the promotion of the Kurdish cause is part of the US policy to open the way for the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Syria in order to contribute to the security of Israel.
In light of this, it would be more realistic to admit that Turkey and the US are not on the same page regarding the Syrian crisis. The visits to Turkey by two high-level American figures were originally meant to bridge the gap between the positions of these two NATO allies, but the press release issued after the meetings is rich in kind words and less generous in concrete steps to be taken; except for the setting up of a “mechanism,” which is not a guarantee to solve all the controversial issues. This result has to be perceived as postponing the solution — or the collapse of the talks — to a later date.
A more rational approach would be to acknowledge this incompatibility in the first place and focus on narrowing the gap between these two positions.
This analysis does not take into account the advanced level of cooperation between Turkey and Russia, which is at present the most influential player in Syria. Turkey is genuinely cooperating with Russia and this has provided Ankara with an opportunity to adjust its Syria policy to the reality in the field.
On Turkish-American relations, the only relief for the moment is that a train crash seems to have been avoided.