Erdoğan wants election boost from Pompeo’s meeting on Manbij

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is to host Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Monday, a sign the two NATO allies may be making progress on the many issues between them, but the State Department denied Turkey’s assertions that they had reached an agreement on the northern Syrian town of Manbij.

Scores of U.S. troops are stationed in Manbij training mainly Kurdish forces to fight the remnants of Islamic State. Ankara says the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that is fighting Turkey and recognised as a terrorist organisation by the United States.

Turkey wants U.S. troops to withdraw from Manbij to its forces can drive out the YPG. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert this week denied claims made by officials of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) that the two countries had reached an agreement on the future of Manbij.

By insisting that the United States “doesn’t have any agreements” with the Turkish government on Manbij, Nauert may have indicated the State Department was not beholden to any unofficial deal reached by previous Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Some Washington sources tell Ahval that indeed the State Department's position on Manbij is the same as Nauert stated.

On the other hand the United States does not have a strong position in northern Syria. President Donald Trump’s plan is unclear, but he seems determined to pull out of the war-torn country. At the same time, the Iran hawks he has filled his cabinet with seem to side with Israel about taking a hard stance against Tehran. As a result, while Pompeo promises to crush Iran’s allies in the region, he is also searching for ways to leave Syria in accordance with Trump’s wishes. Alienating Turkey would only further complicate the United States’ conflicting goals in the region.

Nauert said it remained to be seen whether or not Turkish officials would be able to sit down and reach some consensus with the new secretary of state.

In the run-up to June 24 Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections, there does not seem to be any good news coming out of Washington for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Meanwhile, Trump, the U.S. administration and Congress have all sent messages distancing themselves from Turkey.

Just a few weeks ago, amid speculations by some experts that the United States had no choice but to proceed with its plans to transfer F-35 advanced fighter jets to Turkey, both chambers of Congress circulated legislation attempting to block the sale.

The outcome of these calls for sanctions on Turkey will not be clear before the June 24 elections, but if Erdoğan wins the elections, the U.S. government will be watching him closely to see whether will complies with U.S. demands. Topics of particular concern are Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who has been detained in Turkey for more than a year-and-a-half, and Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defence systems.

Even Trump himself, while hosting an American who was rescued from Venezuela, made a statement about Brunson that set the tone for U.S.-Turkish ties for the week. In these remarks Trump called the ongoing judicial process in Turkey “not so much of a trial”, and rejected allegations that Brunson was a spy. Having worked to free Brunson since coming into the Oval Office, Trump’s expressions were stern.

Trump’s one of greatest PR strategies has been freeing hostages, and after successfully repatriating U.S. citizens from North Korea and Venezuela, he is undoubtedly frustrated with his lack of success negotiating a pastor’s return from a NATO ally.

As Dr. Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Foundation of the Defense of Democracies told Ahval this week that Pompeo belongs to the very same church as imprisoned Andrew Brunson which is the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. "It would be extremely difficult for Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu to argue" that Brunson "is a spy, or a coup plotter. No single piece of evidence in 62 page of indictment indicate that." By itself, the Brunson issue is going to be a tough one for both to reconcile.

It is also important to bear in mind that U.S. television programmes such as “Morning Joe” have been airing near 10-minute-long segments discussing Turkey in a similar hostile manner to Iran, an avowed enemy of the United States.

All of these factors increase the importance of the upcoming June 4 meeting between Pompeo and Çavuşoğlu.

The AKP government is hopeful the meeting will result in an agreement between the two countries on the future of Manbij. The day after Nauert said the United States “doesn’t have any agreements” with Turkey, Çavuşoğlu said the Syrian Kurdish YPG would be forced to leave the city. The same day, the state-run Anadolu news agency published an article detailing a three-stage plan for Manbij. It seems government circles are attempting to present this plan as the one agreed upon during Tillerson’s February visit to Ankara.

As far as the AKP government is concerned, the criterion for success of the June 4 meeting will be reaching a consensus on Manbij favourable to the Turkish side.

Some news coming out of the region indicates that the Syrian Defence Forces, dominated by the YPG, have been withdrawing from Manbij.

If this withdrawal does occur, and Turkish and U.S. forces become Manbij’s protectors, Ankara will win a second victory after its successful campaign against the YPG in the northwestern Syrian district of Afrin and receive a pre-election boost.

Yet Pompeo has painted an unfavourable portrait of this U.S. ally of 70 years, expressing that Turkey is “in a wrong trend” and is seriously considering cancelling the F-35 transfer

Çavuşoğlu’s announcement that Manbij is only the beginning of future negotiations to secure the evacuation of Kurdish forces from the Syrian cities of Raqqa and Kobani, either signal the AKP’s optimism about the June 4 meeting, or represent Çavuşoğlu’s attempt to raise expectations and put pressure on Pompeo.

Pompeo needs Turkey if he wants to defeat Iran, which is his real target.

Can Pompeo keep Erdoğan on his side, or will he treat Turkey as a player in the Iranian camp?

Or will he make concessions on Syria to secure a “grand bargain” and draw Turkey to his side?

The AKP has had a very difficult election campaign season until now. Will the U.S. approach to the June 4 meeting bestow a victory upon the AKP?

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.