US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Feb. 16 visit to Ankara, against the backdrop of unprecedented tensions between the two countries, appears to have averted a “train crash in ties,” as one Turkish analyst put it. That the sides are talking now instead of hurling open or barely shrouded threats at each other is a positive development, seasoned diplomats say.
In an article for Hurriyet, retired ambassador Oguz Celikkol pointed out that Tillerson was immediately preceded by US national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who met President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief adviser Ibrahim Kalin in Istanbul, as well as talks between US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his Turkish counterpart Nurettin Canikli in Brussels on the sidelines of a NATO gathering.
“A better atmosphere has emerged in both capitals, compared to a week ago, for ties to be repaired and normalized, and for trust to be reinstated in relations,” Celikkol wrote.
Nevertheless, Tillerson’s extended talks with Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu appear to have produced few if any concrete solutions to contentious issues. They resulted instead in a general understanding of the need to normalize ties. The sides agreed to establish what they are referring to as a set of “mechanisms” that will start working by mid-March to address outstanding issues.
Pro-government analysts have been quick to argue that tough talk from Erdogan and the dire warnings from Cavusoglu forced the American side to seek to solve its problems with Ankara.
Erdogan reacted angrily last week to a US general who threatened to respond robustly to any Turkish move on Manbij in northern Syria that might endanger American forces or fighters from the US-supported People's Protection Units (YPG) there.
“Those who say that they would respond if they are hit have never tasted an Ottoman slap,” Erdogan said, using the Turkish idiom for a deadly or incapacitating slap.
Cavusoglu said before Tillerson’s visit that Turkish-American ties were at a point where they would “either improve or break completely” and added that Turkey would no longer tolerate empty promises from the United States.
Mehmet Acet, a pro-government columnist for Yeni Safak, listed two reasons Tillerson had come to Ankara. The first, he contended, was the determination Turkey displayed with its operation against the YPG in Afrin, and the second was Ankara's declaration that the Afrin operation would be extended to Manbij and beyond, as far as the Iraqi border, to regions held by the YPG with US backing.
“When Turkey showed its power in the field, its shadow fell on the diplomacy table and Washington had to act according to the new situation,” Acet argued.
Others reasoned that Washington’s continuing need for Turkey, given Turkey’s strategic location and its hosting of vital US military assets, forced the Donald Trump administration to try to resolve issues that have clouded ties.
Whatever it was that brought Tillerson to Ankara, major hurdles, especially regarding Syria, remain if ties are to be normalized.
Turkey has a long list of demands, which include the thorny issue of the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the Islamic preacher residing in Pennsylvania who Ankara says masterminded the failed coup against Erdogan in 2016.
Turkey also wants the United States to end its alliance with the YPG, which Ankara says is a Kurdish terrorist organization, and take back the weapons the group was supplied.
Ankara’s immediate concern, though, is to rid Manbij and territories east of the Euphrates River of the YPG. US forces backing the YPG are also deployed in those regions. Erdogan has been warning that if the United States doesn’t take the actions Ankara wants, Turkey will.
Hurriyet’s Washington representative Cansu Camlibel said in her assessment of Tillerson’s visit, “We should now expect Ankara to hold off on a possible attack on Manbij while Turkish and American officials sit down to narrow the gap between them in the coming weeks and months.”
During his press conference with Cavusoglu in Ankara, where both men went out of their way to underline the continuing importance of maintaining their “strategic partnership,” Tillerson said Manbij would be a priority issue. “It’s one of the first areas we’re going to work on. The United States made commitments to Turkey previously. We’ve not completed fulfilling those commitments,” he said.
His remarks appeared to suggest that an accommodation could be arrived at over Manbij, which is different from what Washington has been saying.
Cavusoglu said the first aim would be to push the YPG out of Manbij, east of the Euphrates. He nevertheless expressed Turkey's lack of trust in the United States during his opening remarks at the press conference.
“There were certain promises that were not kept, and there were certain issues that we could not resolve. So from this point on, we want to focus as to how we can take solution-oriented steps so that the issues are not just on paper,” he said.
Few specifics emerged during the press conference, but Reuters reported while Tillerson was in Ankara that Turkey had proposed a joint deployment of Turkish and US forces 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,” an unnamed Turkish official was quoted as saying.
Camlibel questions this proposal, given the continuing US reliance on YPG fighters. “The reported Turkish proposal to push the YPG out of Manbij and in their place station Turkish troops together with US troops will be a hard one for the Trump administration to sell to US commanders on the ground,” she said.
What happens east of the Euphrates, even if an agreement is reached over Manbij, is another unanswered question. Washington has indicated that it plans to remain in Syria for the foreseeable future. It is unlikely, therefore, to compromise its hold over territories east of the Euphrates held by the YPG with support from a large US military contingent.
The question of Manbij still remains an unsolved problem, too. Some are suggesting that Washington is merely playing for time with Tillerson’s remarks on the topic because it sees that Turkey’s operation in Afrin is going to take months to succeed, during which time the overall situation may change for Ankara.
As matters stand, the situation in Afrin has already gotten more complicated for Turkey, following reports that the regime is sending forces there in response to a call from the YPG. If true, few believe it could have happened without Russian approval.
That these reports emerged immediately after Tillerson’s visit also begs the question of what the Russian response will be if Ankara and Washington reach an agreement over any part of northern Syria. Moscow could interpret it as another case of Turkish vacillation that ultimately makes it an unreliable partner for Russia. Turkey’s dilemma is that it can’t afford to anger Russia at the moment.
Meanwhile, the continuation of the uncertain political and military environment in Syria and the very real potential for unexpected developments could threaten any progress made in resolving differences between Turkey and the United States, two supposed “strategic partners” that act more like adversaries today than friends. The animosity will ensure that their ties remain fragile.
So while a crash may have been averted in Turkish-American ties for now, there is no guarantee that new tensions will not emerge if their new “mechanisms” can’t produce viable solutions.