This article was published in Arab News on July 8, 2018.
Manbij agreement on track as Turkey-US ties improve
There are signs of a thaw in Turkey’s relations with the US. One reason for this may be the post-electoral atmosphere in Turkey, as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) readjusts its policies to the outcome of the vote. Another reason may be Washington’s changing attitude toward Turkey. In the continuously fluctuating Ankara-Washington relations, we are now going through a period where those who favor the improvement of ties are having greater influence. Many in the US warn the White House of the risks of losing NATO ally Turkey at this critical juncture, when the Middle East is in turmoil.
After the June 24 elections, the number of the AKP’s seats in a parliament of 600 has been reduced to 295, meaning it has lost its parliamentary majority. Therefore, a new approach has to be devised in many areas, including foreign policy. In his first public statement after the election, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his party had got the electorate’s message and that it would draw the appropriate lessons. Party officials say they will give priority to three areas: The fight against terror; the economy; and foreign policy. Manbij is situated at the intersection of the fight against terror and diplomacy.
Two senior US senators, Lindsey Graham and Jean Shaheen, paid a visit to Turkey and Manbij. They are part of the hawkish group acting against Turkey in Congress. They submitted an amendment in the Senate Armed Forces Committee to bar the delivery of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey if Ankara does not give up its plans to buy the Russian S-400 air defense system and does not release American Evangelical Pastor Andrew Brunson. The pastor is detained in Turkey on charges of links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the movement of the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.
When they visited Turkey, the senators first went to see Brunson in the prison where he has been detained for more than 20 months while waiting for his trial, which is scheduled to take place on July 18. They promised the pastor they would raise his case with Erdogan and they did so. Erdogan must have explained to the senators that the judiciary in Turkey is independent and that it is up to the court to decide what to do. If the court decides to release the pastor, a further thaw may be expected in Turkey-US relations.
Erdogan had a chance to hear from the horse’s mouth how determined the senators were in their initiative. Graham said after his meeting with Erdogan that, if Turkey carries out further incursions in Syria, it would get itself into a quagmire.
Despite this less-than-diplomatic warning over Turkey’s intentions to continue its military operations to the east of the Euphrates River after Manbij is cleared of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters, the Turkish-US Manbij agreement seems to be on track. Turkish soldiers have already started patrolling on the northern bank of the Sajur River.
In the continuously fluctuating Turkey-US relations, we are now going through a period where those who favor the improvement of ties are having greater influence.
After Turkey, the senators continued their tour in Manbij, where they told the YPG that they would inform President Donald Trump of the importance of not withdrawing American soldiers from the region.
The US authorities also promised Turkey that the weapons it had distributed to YPG fighters were going to be taken back, but Ankara is aware of the difficulty of verifying the return of the weapons and probably does not cherish grand illusions on this particular aspect of the promise.
While the YPG has announced that it has already started to withdraw its military advisers from Manbij, the city’s military council — a subordinate organ of the Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by the YPG — warned the Turkish army to avoid entering Manbij or they would be fired upon. Despite these contradictory statements, Turkey continues to expect that the withdrawal will be completed by the beginning of October and it announced that it would verify the withdrawal through its own channels.
On Thursday last week, one person was reported killed and several wounded in an explosion during an anti-Turkey demonstration in Manbij. This demonstration is bad news for the difficult task awaiting the Turkish troops when they move into the city.
A dim hope for Turkey is that the US now has additional leverage to persuade the YPG not to resist its demands for keeping the US-Turkish Manbij deal alive: The rivalry between the SDF and another Kurdish organization in Syria, the Kurdish National Council (ENKS), established and funded by the Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani and supported by Turkey. But Turkey should not expect much from the YPG’s rivalry with the ENKS because, despite Turkey’s and Barzani’s efforts, it cannot match the YPG’s effectiveness.
Both sides will be happy if the Manbij agreement is implemented more or less satisfactorily, and without further damaging Turkish-American relations.