The second annual Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) Conference in Washington took place last week with the title “The Future of the U.S.-Turkey Partnership.” The future of Turkish-U.S. ties has been debated extensively in the last few years as a result of the ups and downs in relations. The disagreements between the two countries about regional issues and politics has been the main source of this friction. During the early 2000s the first major disagreement took place between the two countries over the Iraq war. This crisis deepened as the situation in Iraq deteriorated. It was only contained in the last years of the U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration. Another major crisis took place during President Barack Obama’s administration when Ankara tried to broker a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. While Ankara was trying to avoid another major confrontation that would destabilize the region, its efforts were regarded as against U.S. interests by some in Washington. After the containment of this crisis by the leaders of the two countries, the most significant crisis at the moment is over the civil war in Syria.
Part of the current problems taking place over the tactical divergences between Turkey and the U.S. concerns Bashar Assad. Although in the early phase of the conflict both countries had said that the Assad regime had lost its legitimacy, in the later phases there have been disagreements on how to handle this crisis caused mostly by an oppressive regime. But in recent years, the more serious tension between the two allies within the context of Syria has been over the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. In fact, four months ago, during the Insight Turkey annual conference, in a panel on Turkish-U.S. relations, all of the panelists agreed that the YPG will become the biggest spoiler in the future of bilateral relations. And SETA DC’s second annual conference, which was dedicated to Turkish-U.S. relations, demonstrated that the YPG issue has become the most significant problem between the two countries.
The tactical divergences between Turkey and the U.S. concerning Iraq, Iran and Syria have caused significant friction between the two allies in the past decade.
During the different panels, there was constant emphasis from different panelists on the significance of this issue for future ties between the two countries. While talking about the state of relations between the two countries almost everybody said that it is one of the most difficult problems in their history. Unlike the Obama administration, most of the panelists emphasized that the distinction between the PKK and YPG is superficial and Turkey has the right to have some concerns about the U.S. military support for the YPG. Furthermore, there were also questions about the potential outcomes of this support for the civil war in Syria. It was said how the Syrian regime tried to use the YPG against the opposition and how the YPG acted quickly to eliminate alternative voices among Syrian Kurds. Moreover, the possible consequences of this support also generated a more grim conversation. The panelists said this support from the U.S. can alienate Syrian Arabs, who will be critical for the future stability of Syria and how it will be unfeasible to depend on the YPG to fight against DAESH. The conversations on these panels demonstrated the YPG issue is not only jeopardizing relations between the U.S. and Turkey, but has become a more serious issue for U.S. policies in the region in general. The actors who question this almost unconditional support for the YPG today include members of the Syrian opposition as well as the people from different branches of the government in the U.S.
So at the regional level, the YPG and the Syrian conflict have become major challenges for bilateral ties. However, this is not the only challenge in Turkish-U.S. relations. In some sense it is almost a symptom of a more systemic problem that was constantly raised by the panelists during the meeting. It is the challenge of the international system and the ambivalence and fluid definition of alliances that has hurt Turkish-U.S. ties. I will discuss this issue in a second column on Monday.
This article was first published in the Daily Sabah on May 13, 2016.