As US builds bridges with Turkey, tensions simmer
Washington - The United States and Turkey have resolved to kiss and make up after weeks of differences and often bitter exchanges that tested the limits of one of the oldest partnerships in the Middle East.
“Both sides recognise that they need each other,” said Kemal Kirisci of the Brookings Institution in Washington. For the United States, Turkey was a “pain in the neck ally” but also a partner of 70 years, he said, adding: “Are you really just going to dump him and move on?”
US President Barack Obama, who met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the fringes of the Group of 20 summit in China, was full of praise for the way Turkey defeated a coup attempt by parts of its armed forces in July, battling terrorism and helping in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.
“Turkey is a strong NATO ally, a critical member of the coalition against ISIL,” Obama said, using another acronym for the Islamic State. He did not mention the arrests of tens of thousands of people following the coup attempt. Erdogan said the United States was a “strategic partner and a very close ally”, calling the bond between the two countries “a model partnership”.
Only ten days earlier, US Vice- President Joe Biden had a decidedly frosty meeting with Erdogan in Ankara. Pro-government media in Turkey accused the United States of being involved in the attempted coup and in efforts to create a Kurdish region in northern Syria to cut Turkey off from the rest of the Middle East.
“America is laying siege to Turkey and is trying to destroy it,” Ibrahim Karagul, editor of the pro-Erdogan newspaper Yeni Safak, wrote on August 25th. A Turkish government minister accused Washington of being behind the coup attempt. A recent opinion poll said 90% of Turks did not trust the Americans.
One reason for the accusations was that Washington rejected Turkish demands to immediately arrest and extradite Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic scholar and a former supporter of the Turkish government, whom Erdogan accuses of having staged the coup attempt. After his meeting with Obama, Erdogan touched on the subject but in a much softer tone. Evidence against Gulen “will be amassed and they will be submitted to our friends in the United States” to bolster the extradition request, Erdogan said.
Turkey’s intervention into Syria near the border town of Jarabulus with a second stage in which Turkish tanks and pro-Turkish militia groups crossed into Syria further west has boosted Ankara’s confidence and the Turkish role in Syria.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the swift military advance in northern Syria “repulsed” terrorist groups from the border area. The action deprived ISIS of its last toehold along the 900km Turkish-Syrian border, a longstanding aim of the US-led coalition fighting the jihadists. Losing access to the border cut ISIS supply lines used to bring in weapons and fighters.
Turkey does not want to stop there. Erdogan said he proposed to Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin establishing a no-fly zone over land seized by Turkey’s forces and their allies. It was not clear how the planned ceasefire, agreed to by the United States and Russia and to go in effect September 12th, would affect those plans.
For Ankara, Turkey’s rapid advance into Syria served to make another point to Washington: The fact that Turkish troops and Sunni- Arab allies of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) could push back ISIS so quickly shook the US argument that the Syrian Kurds are the only efficient fighting force against the extremists in Syria.
“Turkey is saying: ‘Yes, we are ready to conduct military operations if we choose to do so,’” said Andrea Taylor, associate director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
Turkey said it is wrong for the United States to rely on the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Syria’s main Kurdish party, and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia. Both the PYD and the YPG are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a rebel organisation that has been fighting against Ankara since 1984 and that is considered a terrorist group by Turkey and the West.
Washington’s insistence on training and arming Kurdish fighters in Syria has developed into a major problem between Turkey and the United States. For Turkey, preventing the unification of two Kurdish-controlled regions in northern Syria was a major reason to send troops across the border in the first place.
“Turkey hopes that this operation will serve its long-term interests,” said Oytun Orhan, an analyst at the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), a think-tank in Ankara. “The most prominent is to prevent the PKK/YPG from having a unified territory in northern Syria,” Orhan told the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper in Turkey.
But Kirisci said Turkey, which had been accused by Western governments of dragging its feet in confronting the threat posed by ISIS, had also realised that it had to do more to combat ISIS. “Turkey recognises that that they have to fight ISIS seriously and not just mess around,” Kirisci said.
The Obama administration has expressed support for Turkey’s Syria operation, while telling the Syrian Kurds to withdraw but Washington has not cut its support for the PYD and the YPG in Syria, even though Turkey would like to see that happen.
Taylor said despite their differences on Syria and other issues, the United States and Turkey could be expected to keep working together. “Regardless of whether or not the US agrees with what the Turkish leadership is doing, Turkey is absolutely critical,” she said. “We can’t turn our back on Turkey.”