February 18, 2018
In view of increasing tensions between Ankara and Washington, engaging in comprehensive, substantial and authoritative talks at sufficiently high level, preferably in Ankara to be of consequence, had become the dictate of diplomacy (1). Last week, following other high-level talks, Secretary Tillerson visited Ankara and met with President Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu. Since there was nobody else in the room other than the three at the Presidential Palace last Thursday, there will be no proper record of this meeting and hopefully this will not lead to new misunderstandings.
Tillerson’s visit was preceded by unprecedented anti-American rhetoric in Ankara. Statements by American commanders that the U.S. will not withdraw from Manbij angered Turkey’s political leadership. Their reaction and the language used was uncommon. Thus, Turks started discussing whether the Turkish-American alliance which, despite ups and downs, has stood the test of time would become the next casualty of the Syrian conflict. Anti-Americanism surged.
At the end of his talks in Ankara, Secretary Tillerson held a press conference with his Turkish counterpart (2). And, a “Joint Statement on Turkey-U.S. Strategic Partnership” was issued (3). While the U.S. side appeared to have a broader outlook, Turkey’s attention, with domestic policy considerations weighing heavily, focused on PYD/YPG and Manbij. The two sides agreed to establish a “results-oriented mechanism” to manage their outstanding differences.
In his introductory remarks, Mr. Tillerson said, “We have long supported and will continue to support Turkish democracy. Respect for the rule of law, judicial independence, and an open press are a source of strength and stability. When Turkey maintains its commitment to these principles, it expands our potential partnership.” As a matter of fact, commitment to these principles remain key to Turkey’s global status.
Mr. Tillerson’s most key remarks on Syria were the following: “… And I think that’s the important point I want you to take away here, is we’re not going to act alone any longer. We’re not going to be U.S. doing one thing and Turkey doing another. We are going to act together from this point forward…”
On the day of the visit Reuters reported, “In a proposal aimed at overcoming the allies’ stark differences over Syria, a Turkish official told Reuters, Turkey had proposed that Turkish and U.S. forces could deploy jointly in Manbij. Such a deployment could take place only if YPG fighters first withdrew from Manbij to positions on the opposite bank of the nearby Euphrates river, the official said. That condition repeats a long-standing demand of Turkey, which says Washington broke a promise that the YPG would withdraw from Manbij once Islamic State fighters were defeated in the town.”
If such a proposal was indeed made, in the light of U.S. calls for restraint in Afrin and Mr. Tillerson’s remarks that the two countries are going to act together from this point forward, one may expect an expanded American counterproposal for joint deployments in both Afrin and Manbij. Turkish reaction to such a proposal may be positive provided, of course, that the YPG withdraw from both areas.
In Ankara Mr. Tillerson also said “We have to think about all of northern Syria…” Since the Turkish Government has repeatedly mentioned a safe-zone along the entire Turkish-Syrian border, the two countries will continue to have a fully-loaded Syria agenda on top of other outstanding bilateral problems such as Turkey’s demand for Fethullah Gülen’s extradition, the Zarrab case and the possibility of U.S. sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems. What is obvious is that the U.S. will not stop cooperating with the PYD/YPG which provides Washington the only foothold in Syria.
For Ankara, how Moscow, Damascus and Tehran would react to concrete Turkish-American cooperation in Syria, if that proves to be the case, will also be a big question.
All things considered, the recent series of high-level talks between Ankara and Washington were timely and useful. However, challenges for the new “results-oriented mechanism” will be huge. Many Turkish observers saw these talks as an effort to “normalize relations”, reflecting the decline of what is still called a “strategic partnership”.
Unfortunately, following a very brief period of cautious optimism, things are again moving in a worrisome direction in Syria. According to many observers, the country now risks a confrontation among the major regional and world powers; Syria’s war is mutating into a regional conflict, risking a wider conflagration; a war that began with protests against the regime is rapidly descending into a global scramble for control over what remains of the broken country of Syria, risking a wider conflict. Indeed, as their priorities shifted, allies united in their desire to oust President Assad have become adversaries. Those who were on opposite sides have turned into quasi-allies. Differences over Syria’s future have started to upend decades-long alliances. Geneva and Astana processes have yet to prove complementary.
Ten days ago, an Israeli jet was shot down after bombing an “Iranian site” in Syria. Last week, an American airstrike in the vicinity of Deir al-Zour reportedly resulted in the death of dozens of Russian nationals claimed to be mercenaries. Pentagon’s 2019 budget will include 300 million dollars for the train-and-equip program for the Syrian Democratic Forces and $250 million for building a “border security force”. In brief, as Russia is shifting its attention to reaping the political benefits of its intervention in Syria through Astana process dominated political transition, Washington is increasing its military engagement and underlining commitment to the Geneva process.
Last week, Secretary Tillerson said in Kuwait that 98 percent of the territory once held by ISIS in Iraq and Syria has been liberated. He added that the end of major combat operations does not mean that the anti-ISIS coalition has achieved the enduring defeat of ISIS.
As Al-Monitor has pointed out, a turnaround in Syria requires a change of mindset. In the absence of progressist regional leadership, the key to such change remains American-Russian agreement on an agenda of peace in Syria. The history of the Middle East has amply shown that military interventions, forced regime changes, proxy wars have served neither the interests of the peoples of the region nor those of external powers. Continuing the same path will only empower al-Qaida, al-Nusra, ISIS and their likes. This, indeed, is the time for a major international commitment that would underline a change of mindset.
Though this may sound ludicrous to many at this juncture, the end of “major combat operations” offers an opportunity to launch a belated non-military offensive against ISIS’ jihadist ideology. To seize the moment, the anti-ISIS coalition needs transform itself into an even broader, focused alliance and engage in a major political/economic/social stabilization and reconstruction effort across the broad Middle East starting with Iraq and Syria. Such an alliance should comprise Russia and China. Islamic countries must be at the forefront because they are the ones to deal the final blow to ISIS’ jihadist ideology, if ever. Until now they have responded to acts of terror and atrocities with force when they were targeted. However, their reaction on ideology has been weak. They have only said that these are not compatible with the teachings of Islam. Joint Statement on Turkey-U.S. Strategic Partnership refers to combating radicalism, violent extremism and Islamophobia. Progress in the first two will also help eliminate the third.
Syria’s political transition and an agenda of peace is also a better option for Turkey than military engagement, the last phase of an appalling foreign and security policy trajectory. It is high time for Ankara to cut down the rhetoric, prioritize diplomacy over confrontation, national interest over ideology and rebuild badly damaged friendships.
(1) Turkish-American Relations Under Strain, January 29, 2018.