This article was published in Arab News on November 4, 2018.
Turkish-US relations continue to fluctuate
Turkish-US tensions eased slightly last week with Ankara’s release of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was detained for two years in Turkey. Washington and Ankara subsequently lifted reciprocal sanctions. The thaw continued when the US decided to keep eight countries outside the scope of sanctions on Iran because of their dependence on Iranian oil. Turkey’s energy minister said his country was among the eight.
Ankara and Washington also agreed to carry out joint patrols on the outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Manbij. It remains to be seen whether the agreement will be implemented to Turkey’s satisfaction and lead to the withdrawal of all fighters of the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Manbij.
If the Turkish-US thaw continues, it may contribute to easing other tensions. One of them is the ban imposed by the US Congress on the delivery of F-35 fighters to Turkey. The irony is that Turkey manufactures several components of the aircraft, so the entire production program may be affected negatively. It may take more than a year to fill the gap if Turkey stops delivery of these components.
Another defense-related issue is Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, which is not interoperable with the NATO air defense equipment that the Turkish military is equipped with.
If the S-400 identifies an imminent threat directed at Turkey, it will not be able to convey this message automatically to the country’s air defense system, rendering useless billions of dollars’ worth of Turkey’s defense infrastructure. This is a major shift in defense doctrine, which is conceivable only if there is a major shift in the threat perception.
If the Turkish-US thaw continues, it may contribute to easing other tensions.
The extradition of Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen is another thorny issue. Ankara considers him the mastermind of the attempted military coup in July 2016, and is pushing hard to secure his extradition. But the US, where Gulen resides, has not been forthcoming.
Then there is the fine to be imposed on Turkish state-owned lender Halk Bankasi for its involvement in circumventing US sanctions on Iran. The US Treasury Department is yet to announce the amount of the fine. If it turns to be sizeable, Turkey’s economy will become even more fragile.
None of the aforementioned disagreements is as important as the one about US support for the YPG. On Oct. 26, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced preparations for a military operation against the group east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria.
The day after the announcement, a summit meeting in Istanbul between the leaders of Turkey, Russia, France and Germany issued a final communique confirming Erdogan’s statement in different words, saying the leaders “expressed their determination to reject separatist agendas aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of neighboring countries.”
But support for the “security of neighboring countries,” in other words Turkey, does not mean that if Turkish and American forces clash east of the Euphrates, Russia, Germany and France will side with Ankara.
Last Tuesday, Erdogan said: “We will soon crush the (YPG) terrorist organization with more comprehensive and effective operations. We have completed our preparations.” If this means a military operation east of the Euphrates like the ones in the Syrian cities of Al-Bab or Afrin, the risks will be higher this time for two reasons.
Firstly, the YPG is better armed and trained than in the past. Secondly, the operations in Al-Bab and Afrin were carried out with tacit US consent, and there was no American military presence in these areas. There are now more than 20 US military bases and several thousand American troops in YPG-held territory, and there is no US consent this time.
On the contrary, the State Department’s spokesman said: “Unilateral military strikes into northeast Syria are of great concern to us because there may be American personnel in the vicinity.” One can only hope that Turkish decision-makers have thoroughly considered all the potential consequences of such an operation.