A difficult period of normalization with the US
Turkey and the United States are finally talking about normalization. If everything goes as planned, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s most recent meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will mark a critical turning point in bilateral relations. More specifically, it could go down in history as a meeting during which the U.S. woke up to the significance of being strategic partners with Turkey.
Under the current deal, the two countries will establish working groups to address problems related to consular affairs, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ). They expect to make concrete progress in those areas.
Washington must reconsider its partnership with the YPG in order to convince the Turks to start talking about other issues, including Iran’s containment. But some steps must be taken regarding Manbij first.
As Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated, the Turks are fed up with efforts to postpone necessary steps. They desperately want ongoing talks with the U.S. to yield results. If the working groups turn out to be part of an effort to stall Turkey, Washington stands to lose quite a lot.Bilateral tensions and the situation in Syria make it impossible for the U.S. to run down the clock. At this point, the Americans want to revive the Geneva process before the situation on the ground becomes even more complicated.
Ankara, in turn, would like to combat YPG militants without having to fight the U.S.Under the circumstances, it is clear that the “normalization” agreement represents a positive step. But we must not expect a quick and uncomplicated recovery. Turkey and the U.S. should cooperate on the ground to build confidence and realign their priorities. In other words, it’s best to brace for a painful and challenging process with plenty of ups and downs.Going forward, Mr. Tillerson will have to perform a difficult task.
The Turks are sick and tired of U.S. officials making promises with no intention of keeping them. Again, there is no question about Turkey’s political leadership, whereas Washington is in chaos. At a time when various U.S. government agencies are at war with each other, Mr. Tillerson must find a way to reconcile their positions.
The fact that the Pentagon denied his claim that the U.S. never provided heavy weapons to the YPG within hours was a case in point.Again, even if we were to ignore an apparent effort by CENTCOM to declare its independence from the U.S., John Hannah, Washington’s point person for Syria, is completely unsuitable for cooperation with Turkey. Known for his hostility towards the Turks, he could easily make Brett McGurk look like a reasonable guy.Meanwhile, the visa issue and FETÖ are relatively easier subjects for the newly established working groups.
An FBI investigation into Fetullah Gülen’s charter schools in the U.S. is a positive, albeit inadequate, step. It is absolutely crucial that the process leads to the extradition of Gülen to Turkey.However, reconciling the Syria policies of Turkey and the U.S., which have been contradicting each other since May 2013, will take a lot of effort. Simply put, Washington must reconsider its partnership with the YPG in order to convince the Turks to start talking about other issues, including Iran’s containment. But some steps must be taken regarding Manbij first.
Ankara has no intention to backtrack on Operation Olive Branch and views the U.S. pledge to remove YPG militants from Manbij as the initial sign of normalization. In other words, whether the U.S. can follow through in Manbij will be a litmus test for the whole deal.Going forward, there will be talks about removing the YPG from east of the Euphrates River and the cleansing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from YPG elements.
Likewise, the Geneva process, Iraq’s territorial integrity and a range of other issues will follow Manbij.Meanwhile, the potential Turkey-U.S. alliance in Syria will have to deal with a number of issues related to Russia and Iran. It is no secret that the Americans are deeply unhappy with Turkey’s improving relations with the Russians in Syria and more broadly. As such, the working groups could eventually talk about the S-400 deal and sanctions against Russian companies. Turkey, however, would not let the U.S. create problems in areas of agreement between Ankara and Moscow, including the Astana process, the de-escalation zone in Idlib and the military operation in Afrin. To be clear, Russia could seek to undermine normalizations between Turkey and the U.S. by taking new steps.To summarize, the “normalization” process will be challenging. But there is now hope to repair bilateral relations.
This article was first published by Daily Sabah on February 22, 2018.