November 6, 2017
On October 29, Secretary Tillerson made the following remarks on the occasion of Turkey’s National Day:
“… Turkey has been a close American ally for more than 60 years. We are strategic partners in addressing the causes of instability throughout the world, including the Syrian civil war and our mutual fight against terrorism and violent extremism. We continue our steadfast efforts to enhance border security, increase trade and investment, and promote peace and prosperity across the globe.
“As Turkey marks this anniversary, we reaffirm the strong and resilient ties that unite us, and are confident the close relationship between the Turkish and American people will continue to grow.”
As a matter of fact, Turkish-American relations are at their lowest point in decades. There is deep concern in Washington about where Turkey is heading. For a variety of reasons, Turkey has increasingly become an awkward agenda item for State Department’s spokesperson. The relationship is going through a crisis of confidence and American commanders’ comments on YPG/PYD are adding fuel to the fire. Ankara is publicly questioning its “strategic partnership” with the US. Thus, Mr. Tillerson’s aforementioned remarks can at best be read as a declaration of intent before Prime Minister Yıldırım’s visit to Washington this week where his interlocutor will be Vice President Pence. Both capitals need to use the occasion for a cool-headed exchange of views on outstanding issues and make sure that meaningful diplomatic dialogue continues.
In his address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2013 President Obama had said:
“… The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests. Nevertheless, we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals, whether that means opposing the use of violence as a means of suppressing dissent, or supporting the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights…” (emphasis added)
Disappointingly for the former US President who visited Ankara on his first trip abroad, Turkey has moved from being a “secular and vibrant democracy”, to use his very words before the Turkish Parliament on April 6, 2009 (*), to the category of nations he referred to in his UN address. This does not seem to be a problem for President Trump whose first visit abroad was to Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, last Thursday, on the occasion of “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists”, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert issued a press statement which referred to Syria, Venezuela, Iraq, Sudan, Uganda, Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan as countries where journalists are often under threat from those who wish to silence them and crimes against journalists go unpunished.
Therefore, the question is whether Turkey and the US are able to work on “core interests”.
Ankara and Washington, despite their differences, need each other’s cooperation on a wide range of issues. A case in point is Syria. Turkey wants to prevent the PYD/YPG, a PKK affiliate, from gaining control over a corridor running from eastern Syria to the Mediterranean. And, as Secretary Tillerson’s remarks reflect, border security and the elimination of the terrorists within the so-called moderate Syrian opposition remain important issues for Washington, particularly in the light of reports that some ISIS fighters are returning home to Europe and North Africa after being driven out of their strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa.
Continuing escalation with Iran is another important reason why Washington wishes to put relations with Ankara back on track.
Top agenda items of Prime Minister Yıldırım’s visit to Washington are going to be Middle East turmoil in its multiple dimensions and issues which, in US’ view, are “in the domain of the judiciary”, namely the Gülen and Zarrab cases and the charges brought against American citizens and Embassy personnel of Turkish nationality.
Former Vice President Biden, responding to questions at the end of on his last visit to Ankara in August, 2016, had stated the following on Gülen’s extradition:
“… Our judicial system is… different, but it is our system we have abided by for over 225 years. Nothing will change that…”
“… That’s what we call separation of powers…”
The Zarrab case is more complicated. He is charged with conspiring to violate the United States sanctions on Iran and, reportedly, Turkey’s attempts to settle the matter through diplomatic channels have failed. Here again, the US side will stress due process. Although parallels are being drawn between the court cases in the US and those in Turkey, their potential political implications are vastly different.
Mr. Biden was equally clear on US position regarding Syria’s future:
“No corridor, period. No separate entity on the Turkish border…we believe very strongly that the Turkish border must be controlled by Turkey, that there should be no occupation of that border by any group whatsoever, that Syria must be whole and united, not carved into little pieces…”
However, Washington is unlikely to change tack on PYD/YPG which it considers an effective military proxy in the fight against ISIS. Moreover, the position taken by the Trump administration on Kurdistan Regional Government’s independence referendum was seen by the Kurds as a betrayal of their cause and Washington would not wish to disappoint them a second time soon after that.
Accordingly, Mr. Yıldırım’s interlocutors in Washington are likely to continue offering guarantees regarding Syria’s territorial integrity and reiterate America’s commitment to support Turkey in its fight with the PKK.
Secretary Tillerson said last Thursday that the US wants a whole and unified Syria with no role for Bashar al-Assad in the government. He added that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end and the only issue is how that should be brought about. A few years ago, Ankara would have been delighted. Today, however, Turkey’s top priority is preserving Syria’s territorial integrity; who rules in Damascus has become a secondary issue, particularly in view of the need to accommodate Russia.
With regard to Iraq, Prime Minister Yıldırım’s American hosts will underline the urgency of resolving pending issues under the Iraqi constitution through dialogue between Baghdad and Arbil and ask the Turkish side to support such a process.
In the light of Lebanese PM Saad Hariri’s resignation, his blaming Iran for interfering in Arab affairs and the firing of a ballistic missile from Yemen targeting Riyadh, the US side will surely dwell at length on Iran’s “expanding reach and subversive activities across the Middle East” and explain the rational for additional sanctions targeting Tehran. The Turkish side will respond, with good reason, that the JCPOA is a multilateral agreement which must be respected. Mr. Yıldırım may also underline that should the escalation with Iran spin out of control the entire region would be in total chaos for decades. That means a refugee tsunami hitting Western shores. A White House official told the CNN yesterday that the Iraq war was one of the greatest foreign policy mistakes in American history. Among other things, the comment must have meant the upsetting of regional equilibrium in favor of Tehran.
The American side will draw attention to the negative implications of Turkey’s purchasing S-400 missile systems from Russia. The Turkish side will say that Turkey remains committed to NATO and highlight its disappointment with its NATO partners’ tolerance of terrorist organizations targeting Turkey. The issue will remain on the agenda.
In his congratulatory remarks on Turkey’s National Day, Secretary Tillerson mentioned increasing trade and investment. This is an issue to be keenly pursued by the Turkish side but not much will change, at least in the short-term.
The foregoing is not an attempt to write the record before the visit but to show that one has to be realistic as to what it can accomplish. The exception could be progress in the resolution of the visa issue. Even so, that the visit is taking place is a positive development in itself.