Yaşar Yakış
Feb 23 2018

Tillerson saved Turkish-American relations from collapsing

Turkish-American relations have gone from bad to worse for several years. One of the controversies was the support provided by the United States to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military branch of the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria, Democratic Union Party (PYD). The Obama administration informed Turkey that the United States would keep a record of the weapons delivered to the YPG and promised they would be collected after the defeat of Islamic State (ISIS).

During Tillerson’s visit to Turkey, the Turkish government proposed the expulsion of YPG fighters from Manbij and to deploy Turkish and U.S. troops in the town. Tillerson agreed to consider the proposal.

The Pentagon and the State Department will probably find a formula to accommodate Turkey’s proposal. This proposal is reasonable, because Kurds constitute only a small portion of Manbij’s population. Therefore there is no justification for the presence in Manbij of a military force dominated by Kurdish fighters.

But there are problems: First, will the United States be able to persuade the YPG to evacuate its fighters who played a crucial role in ousting ISIS from the city? The tacit U.S. approval for Turkey’s military operation in Afrin has already caused disillusionment among the Kurds. Now Russia will definitely try to capitalise on this opportunity and present this plan as evidence of the duplicity of U.S. policy, YPG fighters will consider this as betrayal and may refuse to leave the city.

Second, notwithstanding the potential reaction of Kurds, the United States may not be ready to give up its support for the Kurdish cause because of Israel’s security.

Thirdly, Turkey rightly shapes its Manbij policy taking into account that Manbij is not a Kurdish majority city. The non-Kurdish majority of Manbij may have suffered from the harsh treatment of the YPG, but this does not mean that they would prefer Turkish soldiers rather than the Syrian Democratic Forces dominated by the Kurdish fighters.

Damascus has already started to incite the local Kurds and Arabs against the presence of the Turkish army in Afrin. It will probably do the same in Manbij. Therefore there is no guarantee that the Turkish army would be welcome in Manbij.

Fourthly, if YPG fighters are expelled from Manbij, the only other places they can go are the self-declared Kurdish cantons of Jazeera and Rojava. This will mean the consolidation of Rojava’s defence or that Turkey backs down from its stated intention of extending its military operations to the east of the Euphrates. If this is what Turkey has in its mind, this is a realistic decision, because the risks of casualties will be higher if the operation is extended to the east of the Euphrates.

There may be further bargaining on this proposal, first, among various departments in the U.S. administration. The Pentagon may insist on maintaining support for the YPG, whether in Manbij or east of the Euphrates.

The Pentagon’s strong support for the YPG is clear in U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis’ unrealistic proposal of using the YPG to fight its mother organisation, the PKK. The State Department may try to remain committed to Tillerson’s promise to consider Turkey’s proposal and the White House will have to find a middle ground between the two. The second bargaining point will be with Turkey. Turkey committed itself unnecessarily to expand the military operation to Manbij and possibly to the east of the River Euphrates.

Despite this commitment, Turkey cannot easily afford further worsening relations with the United States. Therefore it may eventually settle for a compromise.