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Jan 18 2019

Turkey-U.S. relations facing a new test

U.S.-Turkish relations went through a short period of turbulence this week when U.S. President Donald Trump wrote in a tweet: “We will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds”. 

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalın did not waste time to respond by tweeting that Turkey considered the Kurdish fighters terrorists.

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that Turkey would not be intimidated by such threats. But in an effort to drive a wedge between Trump and opponents of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, he added that Trump’s tweet was addressed to the U.S. domestic audience rather than Turkey.  

Defence Minister Hulusi Akar joined the choir by re-tweeting a three-year-old tweet by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in which he said: “Turkey will prevent the emergence of a (Kurdish) state in the north of Syria, whatever it costs”.  

Trump’s tweet was the culmination of several similar statements by other senior U.S. officials. U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said in Jerusalem on his way to Ankara that Turkey must agree to protect the United States’ Kurdish allies in Syria. This statement led to an angry reaction in Ankara and Erdoğan refused to receive Bolton, who was obliged to confine his talks to a two-hour meeting with Kalın.  

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo similarly said that "ensuring that the Turks don't slaughter the Kurds" was part "of the American mission set". Turkish policy planners have to reckon that these are pieces that complete Washington’s Kurdish policy. 

The Turkish-American row was toned down by a telephone call by Erdoğan to Trump in the evening hours of the same day. Trump announced by tweet the outcome of the conversation saying: “Spoke w/ President Erdoğan of Turkey to advise where we stand on all matters including our last two weeks of success in fighting the remnants of ISIS, and 20-mile-safe zone”. It was as if it was another Trump had written the earlier message.  

Turkey must be fully satisfied with this outcome, because the establishment of a security zone was an idea that it has been promoting since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in 2011, though its proposal was a security zone controlled by Turkey. Comments made by the pro-government media say that Turkey may build houses in this zone to accommodate hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians. Each town in this zone will be governed by a municipality where each ethnic community (Arab, Kurd, Turkmen, Assyrian or others) will be represented proportionally. But Turkey is opposed to the presence of members of the strongest Kurdish political party, Democratic Union Party (PYD), in these city councils and more so the presence of the fighters of its military branch, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

However, this is more easily said than done. It is not easy to identify the members of such a big political party. The number of YPG fighters trained and equipped by the United States is supposed to be around 30,000. Together with the less trained fighters and local security officials, their number amounts to 70,000. Even if they were identified, it is not easy to keep that many active and dedicated people away from all public services. Although the U.S. may withdraw its forces from Syria, it will probably not remain indifferent to the problems faced by its former allies. 

Furthermore, there is the Russian factor. Russia would not like to antagonise Turkey, especially now that the situation has deteriorated in Idlib where cooperation with Turkey is important. But, Moscow has consistently emphasised that the vacuum created by the U.S. pull out, has to be filled by the Syrian government.

Turkey is not the sole actor in Syria and it may not be able to control every stage of the evolution of this case. Therefore, the security zone may eventually become a headache for Ankara. A security zone that was created in 1991 by the United States in northern Iraq was later transformed into a no-fly zone and this is how the autonomy of the Kurdish Regional Government in the north of Iraq came into being. This is the worst-case scenario that Turkey would like to see in the north of Syria.