Mixed feelings for Turkey in U.S officialdom

After the most serious attack for decades that the Turkish army suffered on Feb. 27 in Idlib, Turkey redirected its efforts to Euro-Atlantic sources to acquire its air defence system needs. 

At least 34 Turkish soldiers lost their lives and 32 others were injured in this attack. Although not directly incriminating Russia, Turkish authorities unanimously believe that Russia has a big part in the calamity that befell the Turkish soldiers.

Turkey, after having antagonised for years NATO, EU and especially the U.S., now again turns  to the Euro-Atlantic sources to acquire the air defence systems, especially Patriot missiles it needs to defend itself against further attacks. 

While this change of attitude takes place in Turkey, a similar change of attitude seems to be taking place in Washington. There have always been differences among three powerhouses in the U.S. administration—the White House, Pentagon and the State Department—on how to handle the Turkey file: 

The White House, depending on how president Donald Trump feels that particular day, was either threatening Turkey by tweeting “[with reference to Turkey’s attitude towards Kurds in Syria] I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy, if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path” or saying he was “a great fan of Turkish president Erdoğan”. At present Trump is over-burdened with his election campaign. Therefore, he will probably find less time to deal with Turkey. 

The Pentagon was strongly in favour of relying on the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria rather than cooperating with the Turkish army to fight ISIS and other terrorist factions and also in favour of continued U.S. military presence in Syria.

The Department of State, aware of the importance of Turkey’s strategic location and the importance of the NATO bases in Turkey close to Middle East  war zones, adopted a more middle-of-the-road way in its relations with Turkey. 

The reason for Turkey’s reverting to the Euro-Atlantic provenance was the vacillations the Turkish-Russian relations were going through. The situation in this front is changing almost every hour. An accurate forecast is difficult to make until the details come out of Erdogan-Putin summit scheduled for March 5. 

No breakthrough was achieved until Feb. 28 after three rounds of meetings between the Turkish and Russian senior officials. However, on Feb. 29, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that the two countries have now agreed on defusing the tension in Idlib by fighting the groups considered terrorist by the UN. Since some of the groups protected by Turkey fought in the past in the same ranks with al-Nusra Front, it remains to be seen how this principle will be implemented in practice and whether these groups will be targeted. 

Erdoğan defiantly emphasised that if Syrian government forces do not withdraw by Feb. 29 to the line behind the Turkish observation posts around the Idlib de-escalation zone, the Turkish army is determined to take them on. 

The Syrian army, rather than withdrawing from places it had seized, dealt a serious blow to the Turkish army by carrying out the Feb. 27 attack before the deadline. The deadline has now expired and the Turkish army is trying to do in Idlib what could be done with artillery barrages and drones in the absence of air support in Syrian air space controlled by Russia. Whether Turkey will be able to force the Syrian army away from Turkish observation posts cannot be assessed at the present stage. 

In Washington, James Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Representative for Syria, is eagerly lobbying in favour of delivering the Patriot missiles that Turkey wants. Having served as the U.S. Ambassador in Turkey, he can better assess the importance of NATO’s losing Turkey. But so far he has failed to persuade the Pentagon. 

Senior leaders in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defence have resisted Jeffrey’s proposal. They believe that Russia and Syria would continue to fight even if Turkey receives the Patriots and the clashes would continue to further escalate and even implicate the U.S. Another question is whether Trump would want to antagonise Putin during the critical election campaign. The outcome of the Erdoğan–Putin summit may shed further light on this critical puzzle.

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