Ilhan Tanir
Feb 08 2018

Turkey and U.S. relations at a tough spot

Relations between the United States and Turkey, the nations with the two biggest armies in NATO, are "at a tough spot", a senior U.S. official said.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert opened her press conference on Tuesday with stern warnings to the Turkish government, expressing concerns about the re-arrest of Amnesty International Turkey's chairperson Taner Kılıç and calling for an end to the country’s protracted state of emergency.

As Turkish leaders talk of extending their military offensive against the Kurdish-held Syrian district of Afrin to Manbij where hundreds of U.S. troops are based, some Turkey experts in Washington are beginning to voice doubts over whether the Trump administration has a strategy to deal with Turkey’s manoeuvres in Syria.   

In other words, any plan the United States has to persuade Ankara, or even on what issues it can try to influence the Turkish government, appears to be up in the air.

If, as Turkish diplomatic sources say, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster visit Turkey soon, the main topic for talks will likely be Manbij, just as much as Afrin.

Tillerson is expected to visit Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, and Lebanon next week. Despite not yet being confirmed by the State Department, Turkey is assumed to be another leg of Tillerson's Middle East trip. McMaster's visit to Munich is confirmed, but he may also visit Turkey before or following his meetings in Germany.

But bear in mind that Tillerson is not known to be a very effective actor in the Trump administration. The whole world saw Tillerson's recent attempt to mediate between Qatar and the Gulf countries trampled by President Donald Trump.

McMaster meanwhile recently spoke in Washington of how the Turkish government's role in the Middle East had altered over time and said it had become one of the leading financial backers of radical ideologies.

“Radical Islamist ideology is obviously a grave threat to all civilised people,” McMaster said. “It is being advanced through charities, madrassas and other social organisations.” McMaster said that the organisations had been supported by Saudi Arabia decades ago, but it “is now done more by Qatar, and by Turkey”.

Without a doubt, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s team is getting its fair share of the White House's distaste of Islamists. After making such statements just weeks ago, is McMaster going to visit Turkey and say that Ankara and Washington are strategic partners?

The top officer of U.S.-led coalition forces fighting against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Lieutenant-General Paul Funk and its special operations commander, General Jamie Jarrard, visited Manbij, and once again promised U.S. troops would not leave the area.

The US Central Command commander General Joseph Votel and Defense Department officials have already stated the U.S. forces would not leave Manbij. Turkey and the United States have clearly demonstrated that they are at odds over the Kurds in northern Syria, especially in Manbij.

According to the New York Times, “if the message to Turkey was not clear already … Funk elaborated. 'You hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves.'”

The United States, by sending top envoys to Turkey, perhaps one last time this week, will try to remind Turkey that it is in fact are supposed to be on the same team.

Washington, through Tillerson and McMaster, might be able to explain to Ankara that the United States’ only ally in Syria is the Kurds and that the U.S. alliance with the Kurds is vital for American interests to break Russian and Iranian influence in the country.

And they may want to whisper to Ankara’s top officials that this stated goal is supposed to be also good for Ankara as an ally.

But after Erdoğan said this week that the United States was working against Turkey, Russia, and Iran in Syria, it is conceivable that the Turkish president has already made up his mind to join the U.S. opposition.

Turkey’s operation in Afrin is another mystery.

The military offensive entered its third week, and still there is very little progress. The Turkish army has lost 20 soldiers, and dozens are wounded. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, close to 100 civilians in Afrin have lost their lives as a result of Turkish air and land strikes. Yet, progress is still limited, and the Turkish air force has not conducted any air strikes for the last four days. In a sense, Turkey is complying with the U.S. demand to keep the incursion limited. But it is hard to predict how long this conflict will continue and how much international pressure will build-up.

On the PR side, Turkey is getting pummelled. Turkey has been roundly criticised in the international media for attacking the Afrin Kurds who fought with coalition forces against Islamic State (ISIS) and managed to create a stable region within a devastated country, and even hosted refugees from elsewhere in Syria.

Almost every European nation continues to reprimand Turkey practically every day.

Even the PBS anchor’s persistent questioning last week of Turkey's ambassador to the United States Serdar Kılıç about a possible conflict between the two countries shows how much the relationship between former allies has eroded. Even if there is no clash between U.S. and Turkish forces, the possibility of conflict between their proxies is bigger than ever.

It is worth mentioning that Erdoğan’s government got what it wanted in the Euphrates Shield operation it began in 2016, even at the cost of the lives of 70 Turkish soldiers. But this time, Turkish forces do not have the Sunni groups that welcomed them in Jarablus and then al Bab, but instead they are met by Kurdish forces willing to fight to the bitter end.

The views of U.S. congressmen on Turkey during a committee meeting this week were another eye-opener. In the coming months, a new motion to recognise the Ottoman Empire’s mass killing of Armenians as a genocide will face little opposition this time around.

2018 is likely to be a very stormy year for Turkey-U.S. relations.