We are witnessing interesting times in the Middle East. Days before US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson began his five-day tour of the Middle East, 11-16 February, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — apparently not in a very good mood — warned the United States that it risks what he called “the might of the Ottoman slap”, whatever that stands for. Not before such a ridiculous warning had any Middle East leader, not even late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, proffered such threats against the United States, or used such language when speaking of his country’s differences with Washington.
Not only such offensive language was used, but also military warnings were addressed to American forces stationed in the Syrian town of Manbij. The Turkish government warned that if the Syrian Democratic Forces wouldn’t withdraw from this strategic town, Turkish troops would advance to take it, regardless of the reactions of American troops.
Such language and such direct military threats reflected serious strains in American-Turkish relations as a product of Turkish entanglement in the Syrian crisis and the absence of a joint strategic vision between Washington and Ankara as to shared objectives, if any, in Syria, at present or in the future.
Secretary Tillerson visited Cairo, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, and finally Turkey, the ever-increasingly troublesome NATO and Middle East ally. Of all the five countries he visited, his visit to Ankara was the most delicate from a diplomatic point of view.
It interesting to note that a few days before Secretary Tillerson arrived in the Turkish capital, US National Security Adviser General H McMaster had gone to Turkey where he had a meeting with senior Turkish officials to discuss the overall direction of bilateral relations between the two countries, with a particular emphasis on the Turkish military operation dubbed “Olive Branch” that was launched 20 January to take Afrin from the Kurds in northwest Syria.
Once in town, the US secretary of state had a three-hour meeting with the Turkish president, 15 January, conducted in a “sincere and frank atmosphere” as the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, described it.
This meeting, as well as the talks that were held between Tillerson and his Turkish counterpart the following day, discussed the major differences that have led the two NATO allies to grow apart beginning from the second half of 2016.
The two sides did their best to paper over major disagreements. They agreed to set up joint working groups to come up with solutions by next month. They noted that these working groups would tackle almost all their disagreements, from consular issues to coordinating security and military moves within Syria.
The Turkish foreign minister said, in a joint press conference with Secretary Tillerson 16 February, that the two countries have agreed to take important steps in order to normalise their bilateral relations, adding, nonetheless, that the United States had not kept its “promises”, as he put it. He pointed out that, “There were certain promises that were made, there were certain promises that were not kept, and there were certain issues that we could not resolve.”
Among the questions that have not been resolved is how the American government will deal with the Turkish extradition request concerning Fethullah Gul, whom Ankara has accused of masterminding the failed coup of July 2016.
The position of the Trump administration has not differed from that of the former administration of president Barack Obama; namely, the United States would conduct its own investigation as to a possible role of the exiled Turkish leader in the United States in this attempted coup, and in the meantime would be ready to look into any new evidence that Turkish authorities provide on such a role.
Another major area of disagreement is how to secure northern Syria, especially in towns, cities and areas liberated from the Islamic State (IS) group, and who would provide security in these liberated areas.
One of the major objectives of American strategy in Syria is to prevent the re-emergence of IS in these areas. However, Ankara absolutely rejects the presence of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), trained, assisted and equipped by the United States, along the Syrian-Turkish borders.
It accuses these forces of terrorism and suspects they are linked to the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party of Abdullah Ocalan, who is serving a life sentence in Turkish prisons. In this respect, Tillerson reassured his hosts that American weapons provided to the SDF are limited and “mission-specific” and “provided on an incremental basis to achieve military objectives only”.
Secretary Tillerson also made clear that the United States understands the security concerns of Turkey, and would take them seriously. He stressed that the alliance with Turkey “is not an alliance of convenience or of temporary interest”. He furthermore called Turkey “the linchpin of strategic stability at the crossroads of the three continents”.
Tillerson’s visit to Ankara concluded on a list of shared objectives in Syria; namely, the defeat of IS, to agree on the principle of secure and stable zones, an independent and unified Syria, as well as charting a new “democratic” future for Syria under the process covered by UN Security Council Resolution 2254. How to carry out these objectives jointly is a different story.
However, Secretary Tillerson said that the United States has “long supported and will continue to support Turkish democracy. Respect for the rule of law, judicial independence and an open press are a source of strength and stability.”
He stressed that when Turkey “maintains its commitment to these principles, it expands our potential partnership”.
With the growing authoritarian streak of the Turkish president and his new Ottoman leanings and dreams of regional hegemony, it is not at all clear that we are about to witness the bolstering of the American-Turkish alliance. On the contrary, the odds are that American-Turkish relations would remain strained, at least until Syria stabilises. And God only knows when this could happen.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly