New CIA chief in Turkey to maintain balancing act
“A totalitarian Islamist dictatorship” was how Mike Pompeo described Turkey last year in a later-deleted tweet.
Now President Donald Trump has dispatched Pompeo to Turkey, in his first trip abroad as CIA director, on a delicate diplomatic mission to try to maintain the balancing act of backing a key NATO ally and supporting its Syrian Kurdish enemies while both battle the Islamic State (ISIS).
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was expected to press his case that the United States must choose between its only Muslim-majority NATO ally and the Kurdish-led Syrian forces. With US help, they have pushed ISIS from much of north-eastern Syria and to within striking distance of the militants’ self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa.
Despite a potentially sticky start due to Pompeo’s less-than-diplomatic online pronouncements, both sides seem keen to turn a page on the past.
Erdogan, though he sees himself as a leader of the world’s Sunni Muslims, has refrained from criticising Trump’s attempt to ban citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Trump praised Erdogan’s success in facing down a coup attempt last July, Turkish media said after a February 7th telephone call between the two leaders.
Trump spoke of the two countries’ “shared commitment to combating terrorism in all its forms”, a White House statement said, “and welcomed Turkey’s contributions to the counter-ISIS campaign”.
Pompeo’s visit was agreed to during the call and came as Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel allies broke through ISIS lines and entered the town of al-Bab after weeks of besieging the militants’ last urban stronghold in north-western Syria.
US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said they have advanced to within 11km of Raqqa. The big problem for Turkey is that the SDF is dominated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish offshoot of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984.
Because of Turkey’s large and often restive ethnic Kurdish population — about 20% of the total — Erdogan regards the YPG and its efforts to politically consolidate the autonomy it has won on the battlefield in Syria as an existential threat.
Though both the United States and Turkey list the PKK as a terrorist organisation, the Obama administration insisted the YPG and PKK were not linked and US aircraft carried out scores of air strikes helping the Kurdish fighters drive back ISIS in north-eastern Syria.
US relations soured significantly with Turkey as a result but Obama administration officials succeeded in sufficiently smoothing Turkish feathers so as to be able to carry out those sorties from US bases in southern Turkey.
The signs are that the new administration does not plan a major departure from the policy of attempting to assuage Turkish fears while continuing to back the YPG.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke at his confirmation hearing of “recommitting” to the Syrian Kurds and constructing a renewed coalition “including the Syrian Kurds who have been our greatest allies”.
Since Trump’s inauguration, US aircraft have continued to fly missions from southern Turkey in support of the YPG and the Syrian Kurds have also claimed to have received new armoured vehicles from the United States. The US military is to send 200 more advisers to aid the SDF; a decision approved by the Trump administration, the New York Times said.
With more than two weeks left to run on Trump’s 30-day deadline for the US military to come up with a strategy to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq, it is unlikely there will be an immediate major policy change. Pompeo’s visit is more likely to centre on easing Erdogan’s concerns than setting out a new approach.
James Jeffrey, a fellow at the Washington Institute and former US ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, on February 7th told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States should “maintain our new (YPG) and old (Turkish and Iraqi) relationships”.
“A joint effort on two fronts by the Turks/FSA and YPG/SDF would put more military pressure on ISIS and potentially calm Turkey’s concerns about the YPG. Such a joint operation would be easier for the United States politically than throwing its lot in with a single YPG or Turkish-led offensive, but would still require delicate diplomacy,” Jeffrey said.