With US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s meeting in Ankara on March 30, he became the first senior official in US President Donald Trump's administration to visit Turkey. The visit took place a day after Ankara declared that Operation Euphrates Shield had ended. Meanwhile, the United States has stepped up an operation to surround Raqqa. Politicians in Ankara wonder whether it is possible for Turkey, which has unsuccessfully tried to convince the United States not to support the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) against the Islamic State (IS), to cooperate with the United States in Syria. What were the United States' and Turkey’s expectations from each other? Will these two strategic partners drift apart or find a common ground?
Tillerson was received by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu separately. It was interesting that Tillerson was accompanied by Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter IS, who was earlier criticized harshly by Ankara for his close relations with the YPG.
The main issues in Tillerson’s meetings were recent developments in Syria and the extradition of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is currently living in the United States. The atmosphere and the messages given in the joint Tillerson-Cavusoglu press conference indicate that the crisis between the two countries will continue. Cavusoglu pointed out that Turkey was dismayed by the Barack Obama administration’s refusal to stop supporting the YPG and said, “We want to create a new energy and momentum in our relations under the Trump administration.” Tillerson refused to make a statement regarding the YPG despite persistent questions by reporters. Tillerson’s statement, “What we discussed today were options that were available to us. They are difficult decisions, to be very frank, they are not easy, they are very difficult choices that have to be made,” did not alleviate Ankara’s worries regarding the United States’ position.
A Turkish Foreign Affairs official told Al-Monitor, “We clearly expressed our expectations. We want an end to the support of the YPG. However, the US seems determined to cooperate with the YPG. Our strategy regarding the US will become clearer in the coming days, but we are saddened at this point.”
What are the United States’ plans for Syria? Will the YPG crisis between Turkey and the United States become more chronic? Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies researcher Oytun Orhan told Al-Monitor, “It became definite that the YPG crisis between the United States and Turkey will deepen. The United States clearly expressed its eagerness to cooperate with the YPG and launched an operation in Raqqa without Turkey. The United States is seeking to create its own domain in eastern Syria. It has a high opinion of the YPG's cooperation, rather than Turkey, to counter [IS]. The United States believes Turkey can manage relations with the Kurds in northern Syria as it does with northern Iraq.”
Nihat Ali Ozcan, a strategist from the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, also highlighted that the tension between the United States and Turkey cannot be eased immediately. How can Turkey and the United States cooperate in counterterrorism without finding common ground regarding the YPG? Ozcan answered this question, saying, “The United States chose to carry out the Raqqa offensive without Turkey’s aid. Ankara’s real discomfort is that any support to the YPG is mostly likely to strengthen the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party]. This could augment Syria- or Iraq-supported terrorism in Turkey and directly influence Turkish domestic political developments.”
Ozcan added, “These are fragile times for both the United States and Turkey. Turkey has an upcoming referendum, and the Trump administration has just become active on the field. Therefore, both parties react emotionally.” Ozcan believes this situation might change after the referendum on April 16.
Ozturk Yilmaz, who started his political career as deputy chair of the main opposition Republican People's Party following his service as Mosul consul general, highlighted the “errors” in Turkey-US relations, saying, “Turkey perceives the YPG as a terrorist organization, while the United States sees it as a cooperation partner against IS. Ankara was unsuccessful in explaining its perception to the United States. The government sought to exploit national sentiments in domestic politics by taking on the United States and the European Union to derive domestic political advantages. This has further muddled the foreign policy.”
What about Gulen’s extradition?
Following the July 15 attempted coup, the extradition of Gulen, who Ankara believes masterminded the coup, has played a vital role in the escalating tensions between Turkey and the United States. The Turkish government has demanded that Washington extradite Gulen, but it has yet to receive a positive response. The official said, “We emphasize this issue in nearly all meetings we hold with US officials, but we cannot receive a reply. The Americans clearly could not understand our sensitivity in this matter.”
After his meeting with Tillerson, Cavusoglu said that new documents and information have been provided to the US attorney general and more concrete US steps are expected. Will the United States extradite Gulen? Former Minister of Justice Hikmet Sami Turk said, “Many nations do not extradite individuals for political crimes. The American politicians assert this is a judicial issue that must wait for court rulings. Turkey has received the same response from all foreign institutions in such matters. It is unlikely to see a concrete step from American politicians unless a decision is issued by the American judiciary.”
Osman Faruk Logoglu, the former Turkish ambassador to the United States, told Al-Monitor, “Difficult times are ahead for Turkey-US relations, as there is no positive response at this moment from Washington regarding the extradition of Gulen.” He added, “The recent arrest of the deputy general manager of Halkbank in the United States is considered by Turkey as politically motivated, and the United States is most likely to feel discomfort due to this definition.”
Tillerson’s visit was an opportunity to improve US-Turkish relations, but there was no progress. Logoglu added, “The only emphasized common ground is the determination to counter [IS]. However, the Trump administration wants to cooperate with the YPG against [IS]. Tillerson’s visit indicated that the conflicts in Turkish-American relations started under the Obama administration will further escalate. Difficult times are ahead for both countries.”
Tillerson’s visit indicates that Turkey-US relations will be in crisis for a long time, although both parties acknowledge each other as a strategic partner and ally.
A Turkish diplomat summarized Turkey-US relations to Al-Monitor, saying, “This is not the first crisis we had and it will not be the last. We will face many difficulties during this period. Diplomacy plays a vital role in times like this.”