Turkish-American ties strained over Syria
Istanbul - Ties between Turkey and its most important ally, the United States, are under increasing strain as the two countries follow conflicting priorities in the war in Syria.
Both are members of the international coalition fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and US fighter jets have been using the Incirlik airbase in Turkey to launch attacks against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. However, Ankara and Washington differ on a key issue.
The United States regards the Syrian-Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units (YPG) as an important helper in the fight against ISIS. Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist organisation that has to be stopped. Turkish artillery has pounded YPG positions in Syria, despite US calls to ceasefire.
Both the YPG and its political mother organisation, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have close ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a rebel group that has been fighting Ankara for more than 30 years. Turkey said a YPG member from Syria was the suicide bomber who killed 28 people February 18th in Ankara, a charge rejected by the YPG and PYD. The United States said it could neither confirm nor deny that YPG was behind the bombing.
The row is a reflection of the distance between the perspectives the United States and Turkey have regarding the Syrian conflict. Washington is concentrating its efforts on weakening ISIS; Turkey sees its national security threatened by a Kurdish push for autonomy in Syria and by recent gains by government troops there. The Syrian Army, backed by Russian air strikes, has been targeting the northern city of Aleppo, just 60km from the Turkish border.
A February 19th telephone conversation between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Barack Obama failed to bridge the gap. Both sides said Erdogan and Obama had called on Russia and Syria to stop air strikes on moderate opposition forces but accounts by Erdogan’s office and the White House about other aspects of the 80-minute conversation differed sharply.
According to Ankara, Obama said he was worried about “recent gains of the Syrian regime and the YPG in north-western Syria”, but the White House said the US president had only “expressed concern about recent Syrian regime advances in north-west Syria” — not mentioning the YPG.
While the White House said Obama had called on Turkey to stop the shelling of the YPG, a statement by Erdogan’s office did not include that appeal by the US president. Instead, Ankara pointed out that Obama had underlined “Turkey’s legitimate right of self-defence”, a phrase that did not appear in the White House version.
The call followed angry speeches by Erdogan in which he criticised the US approach. “Hey, America, how often do I have to tell you?” Erdogan said on February 10th to a gathering of village foremen from across Turkey, an audience that relished the tough talk. “Are you with us or are you with this terror organisation PYD and YPG? It’s impossible to understand what kind of a partnership this is.”
The question is how far Turkey is willing to go in its row with a crucial ally. Some observers say Erdogan risks open battle with Washington because Obama will be out of office in a few months. “Ankara may think it’s dealing with a lame-duck government in Washington and it can open a new page with a new US administration,” wrote Serkan Demirtas, a columnist for the English-language Hurriyet Daily News.
Ankara’s ties with other key players — Iran, Iraq and Russia — are strained, so losing US support would leave Turkey isolated. A Turkish government official, speaking February 16th to reporters in Istanbul on condition of anonymity, said communication between Ankara and Washington remain open despite differences about the YPG. The official stressed that Turkey, while ready to send ground troops to Syria, would only do so if there were consensus in the US-led coalition against ISIS.
Signs are that Erdogan, while being outspoken about what he sees as wrong US priorities in Syria, is reluctant to take concrete steps against Washington that could damage the relationship permanently.
US Ambassador to Turkey John Bass was summoned by the Turkish Foreign Ministry on February 9th over Washington’s refusal to end its cooperation with the YPG. At the same time, several pro-government commentators in Turkish media accused the US of abandoning Turkey. “They tell us: ‘Do not fight the YPG, they are our allies’ but then the YPG sends its terrorists as far as Ankara and has them commit terrorist attacks,” wrote Ibrahim Karagul, editor of the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper.
But when Seref Malkoc, an Erdogan adviser, was quoted by the Bugun newspaper as saying that US fighter aircraft could be evicted from the Incirlik airbase in protest over Washington’s support for the YPG, the Turkish president himself stepped in. Erdogan said he did not know whether Malkoc had really called for the Americans to be kicked out of Incirlik. “But anyhow it is wrong for Seref to make such a statement,” he said, adding it was for the government to decide who could use Incirlik.