Feb 09 2018

Trump, bring Erdoğan on side or face ISIS resurgence - former US ambassador

A former U.S. ambassador to Turkey has penned an open letter to Donald Trump, calling on the U.S. president to ensure a “clear and committed” conversation with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to ensure that the United States can achieve its objectives in Syria despite Turkey’s conflicting ambitions and aggressive political diplomacy.

W. Robert Pearson, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Ankara from 2000 to 2003, had his letter published by the Middle East Institute think tank, where he is a non-resident scholar focusing on Turkey.

The letter describes Turkish and U.S. policies in the Middle East region as “on a collision course over dramatically opposing goals.” Turkey is currently conducting a military operation in northwest Syria, where it is fighting the People’s Protection Units, a predominantly Kurdish organisation that is one of the United States’ main allies in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).

This contradiction has led to an extraordinary possibility: if Turkey fulfils Erdoğan’s vow to extend the operation to Manbij, it could mean a direct confrontation with the troops deployed there by their NATO ally, the United States.

Such a confrontation would weaken the U.S. position, and heighten the risk of an ISIS resurgence in the region, wrote Pearson.

To avoid this outcome, Trump’s administration must take into account Ankara’s ambitions, and the strategies it employs to achieve these, according to Pearson.

A main motivator for Turkey’s Syrian operation lies in the desire to stoke nationalism in time for the next presidential election, wrote the former ambassador. Erdoğan feels that, after a weak performance in the referendum last year, a wave of nationalism will ensure his success in the crucial coming elections, which can be held at any time.

Moreover, Turkey is pursuing an expansive foreign policy that has seen it increase its military presence across the Middle East region, and may even include territorial ambitions, wrote Pearson.

This, he wrote, may be a factor behind recent rhetoric by the Turkish president which called into question the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which defined the newly-established Republic of Turkey’s borders after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Pearson also noted Turkey’s methodology for its political diplomacy, which he described as forming a “blame, shame and claim” cycle. Never accepting responsibility for the regional tensions, Ankara instead blames outside “malevolent forces”, then attempts to shame its opposite party with extremist rhetoric to build domestic support, before claiming that Turkey is willing to discuss solutions but “cannot find willing partners”.

To counter this strategy, Pearson offers seven recommendations for talks with Turkey. These include a restatement of the most important U.S. positions around the Syrian civil war, the negotiations to end it, the rights of Kurdish groups to self-defence, and the fight against ISIS.

If Turkey is willing to find common ground with the United States on these, then Trump should offer to pull U.S. forces out of Manbij and east of the Euphrates river, recommends Pearson.

Finally, Pearson states the importance of demonstrating the danger posed to Turkey by Russia and Iran through a detailed brief by U.S. defence, State Department and intelligence officials.