US-Turkey relations back from the brink but not by much

The lack of concrete agreements during Tillerson’s visit is a sign that differences remain.
Sunday 18/02/2018
US Defence Secretary James Mattis (L) with Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, on February 14.                                                                         (AFP)
Postponing tensions. US Defence Secretary James Mattis (L) with Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, on February 14. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - The United States and Turkey succeeded in steering their relations away from an abyss over conflicting priorities in Syria but problems have been postponed rather than solved, analysts said.

Talks between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Turkish leaders in Ankara produced promises of improved cooperation in Syria but few concrete details about that could be achieved, given their vastly different political agendas in the war-torn country.

“We are not going to act alone any longer. We’re not going to be the United States doing one thing and Turkey doing another,” Tillerson said after meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in the Turkish capital. The two sides agreed to set up working groups by mid-March to identify problems and come up with ways to solve them.

Erdogan’s office said the Turkish leader conveyed his country’s “priorities and expectations” to Tillerson in more than three hours of talks on February 15, in which Cavusoglu served as an interpreter. Tillerson and Cavusoglu met the following day and talked about “proposals on how we can address all of the critical issues that are standing between our countries,” the US secretary of state said.

The main obstacle between the two countries remains, however. The United States is supporting, arming and training the Syrian-Kurdish militia the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a partner in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). The YPG is the core of a planned Syrian force to be tasked with blocking a further expansion of Iran’s influence in Syria.

Turkey regards the YPG a terrorist group and has sent its army to fight against it in the north-western Syrian region of Afrin to block the Kurdish drive for self-rule in Syria.

In a nod to Turkish concerns, a joint Turkey-US statement said they “will decisively stand against all attempts to create faits accomplis and demographic changes within Syria and are dedicated to coordination on transition and stabilisation of Syria.” Tillerson also admitted, though, that the United States and Turkey were “at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship.”

Similarly, US Defence Secretary James Mattis acknowledged differences between Washington and Turkey. “I believe we are finding common ground and there are areas of uncommon ground where sometimes war just gives you bad alternatives to choose from,” Mattis said in Brussels, where he was with Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli.

The Turkish minister said Mattis told him the United States was working on a plan to retrieve weapons, especially heavy weapons, given to the YPG. However, Tillerson later said Washington had “never given heavy arms” to the YPG and there was therefore “nothing to take back.”

In Ankara, Cavusoglu described the Turkish-American discord as extremely serious. Before Tillerson’s visit tensions had reached a point “we were either going to correct this and continue our relations or we were going to go into a much, more worse position,” Cavusoglu said.

Even though such a breakdown has been avoided, analysts said the lack of concrete agreements during Tillerson’s visit is a sign that differences remain.

“My sense is that nothing much was agreed to other than to kick the crisis down the road,” said Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor at St Lawrence University in New York and non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington.

A looming crisis over the YPG-held city of Manbij, about 100km east of Afrin, heated up shortly before Tillerson’s visit when Erdogan warned of a possible military confrontation between the United States and Turkey. Turkish officials said Ankara proposed a solution under which the YPG would leave Manbij, which had been declared the next goal of Turkey’s military intervention, and withdraw to the eastern side of the Euphrates River. The city would be put under joint Turkish-US control.

Cavusoglu said during a news conference with Tillerson that the United States had accepted that the YPG had to go. “This is a commitment that the United States of America has made to us, and we will be talking about the implementation of how this promise will be kept,” he said.

Tillerson, however, did not confirm a possible YPG withdrawal. He said it would “be a topic for discussion in terms of how we go forward to ensure Manbij remains within our control because of its strategic importance.”

Gonul Tol, director of the Centre for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said she did not believe that the United States would accept the Turkish proposal. “That makes very little sense,” Gonul said. “America wants the Kurds to run the town,” she said about Manbij. “It is crucial for the stabilisation effort the United States has in mind.”

Also, asking the YPG to give up the city would jeopardise relations between the United States and the Kurdish militia. “The Americans wouldn’t want to signal to the Kurds that they are not committed to their alliance,” Gonul said.

Tillerson’s visit did not produce breakthroughs in outstanding issues between the United States and Turkey either. Washington is asking Ankara to release US citizens from Turkish jails, while Turkey wants the United States to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric accused by Erdogan of being the mastermind behind the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.

Eissenstat noted that Tillerson had openly talked about the rule of law and about US citizens held in Turkish jails, an issue that Washington’s top officials had been reluctant to raise in public. “That is quite new for the Trump administration,” Eissenstat said by telephone. “That is a shift in tone, which I think has become much more pronounced in the last month or so.”

Tillerson’s talks in Turkey came at the end of a tour through several Middle Eastern countries aimed at showing US commitment to its allies in the region. He said the United States stood by Egypt in its fight against Islamic militants and underlined the importance of Washington’s ties to Jordan. Both countries receive billions of dollars in US aid even as foreign support payments are being scaled back by the Trump administration. Tillerson also visited Kuwait to take part in a conference on rebuilding Iraq and had talks in Lebanon.