Claire Sadar
Feb 15 2018

U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson in Turkey for “make-or-break” visit

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Thursday during a visit that comes as Turkish leaders say relations are at “make-or-break” point and when there is a real possibility the forces from the two biggest armies in NATO could clash over Kurdish control of northern Syria.

Turkey launched an air and ground operation against the Syrian Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin on Jan. 20, seeing it as an existential threat to its security likely to boost Kurdish militants who have been fighting inside Turkey for more than 30 years. Turkey has vowed to press on with its offensive and take the area around the town of Manbij, east of Afrin, next.

The United States has backed the Syrian Kurdish forces with arms, training and air support in their fight against Islamic State and says the Turkish incursion into Afrin, in northwest Syria, weakens the battle against the remnants of the extreme jihadist group by drawing Kurdish fighters away from the front in eastern Syria.

Washington has called for Turkey to show restraint in Afrin, where it does not have troops, but U.S. generals have said their forces stationed with the Kurds in Manbij would hit back if attacked.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu made a stark warning to the United States on Monday, a day after U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster visited Turkey for a series of high-level meetings.

“Turkey's expectation from the U.S. is open and clear. We do not want to hear promises anymore, we want to see concrete steps. Our relations are at a very critical point. Either we will repair our relations or the relations will be broken altogether. If the U.S. will not do what is necessary for Manbij, then we will," the Turkish pro-government news channel NTV quoted Çavuşoğlu as saying.

The fear is that Turkish and United States forces could come to blows over Manbij.

“Neither side is looking to provoke a complete break, but then with their rhetoric over Manbij neither has left much room to back down,” Nick Danforth, Senior Policy Analyst for the Bipartisan Policy Center, told Ahval.

“I still don’t think we'll see Ankara risk a conflict with US troops in northern Syria, but they could feel compelled to take other measures instead like imposing restrictions on Incirlik,” he said referring to a U.S. airbase in southern Turkey.

Ryan Gingeras, associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, said things could go either way.

“This 50/50 perception of the state of affairs seems to predominate now. It certainly seems both sides are hedging towards either some sort of patchwork relationship or some sort of catastrophe,” he told Ahval.

The United States this week put aside $550 million in its defence budget to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group dominated by the Syrian Kurdish fighters that Turkey sees as terrorists.

The gulf between what the United States is doing - supporting the Syrian Kurds - and what Turkey wants it to do – stop supporting the Syrian Kurds – is so wide that Tillerson’s visit is unlikely to bridge the divide.

Çavuşoğlu was therefore overstating the impact of Tillerson’s and McMaster’s visits. “which will not make or break the relationship,” Amanda Sloat, Robert Bosch senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, toId Ahval, “It is unlikely they are carrying with them a master plan to address all that ails Turkey. If Ankara is expecting U.S. officials to present a definitive way forward in Syria, they will likely be disappointed in the visit.”

As well as Syria, Turkey and the United States are at odds over a number of issues including the U.S. refusal to hand over U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen without judicial process, Turkey’s arrest of U.S. citizens and U.S. consular employees and Turkey’s proposed purchase of Russian air defence missiles.

“Turkey's hostage diplomacy rhetoric, arrests of U.S. consular officials, and missile purchase deal with the Russians … all send the signal that Turkey under Erdoğan is approaching adversary status, not that of an ally,” Lisel Hintz, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, told Ahval.

The ramping up of anti-U.S. rhetoric in Turkey may have more to do with the Turkish election cycle with municipal, parliamentary and key presidential polls all due next year.

Erdoğan’s government looks vulnerable with only the slimmest lead, according to pollsters.

“Çavuşoğlu’s dramatic statement that U.S.-Turkish relations will either be fixed or completely broken has more to do with domestic politics than diplomacy,” said Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former member of the Turkish parliament. “Until Turkey's 2019 presidential elections, Ankara's diplomatic relations will continue to be a victim of Erdoğan’s re-election anxieties and tactics.”

Until municipal, parliamentary, and presidential elections are held, Hintz said, “Erdoğan's anti-Westernism serves him as a political tool in a campaign on which he has staked everything, and thus is highly unlikely to dissipate even under pressure.”

Until that time, U.S.-Turkish relations look set to remain rocky, Erdemir said. “The Turkish government's relations with and rhetoric toward Washington will continue to be an emotional roller-coaster.”