Despite Erdogan's bombast, no 'Ottoman slap' delivered to US

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Friday 23 Feb 2018

To hear Turkish officials in recent days and weeks, one would have thought that Ankara and Washington would finally part ways

Rex Tillerson, Mevlut Cavusoglu
.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara, Turkey, on March 30, 2017 (Photo: State Department)

Turkish officialdom and media sustained an increasingly strident and often bellicose campaign against the US for most of the past year.

Orchestrated from the White Palace in Ankara, it began some weeks after Donald Trump was sworn in, when Erdogan realised that the new occupant of the White House in Washington was not going to hand over the alleged mastermind of the so-called coup attempt, Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, and moreover that the US was going to continue to support the predominantly Kurdish forces that have been fighting the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.

To hear Turkish officials in recent days and weeks, one would have thought that Ankara and Washington would finally part ways. "Relations between the two NATO allies are on the verge of rupture or being put on ice until further notice," one Turkish columnist wrote.

Some observers expected that Ankara would time this crucial decision to coincide with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s two-day visit to the Turkish capital last week. As he was air-bound for Turkey last Thursday, his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, in a press statement, said that relations between the two countries had reached such a critical point that they would either have to be repaired or severed.

But much to the surprise of anyone unfamiliar with Erdogan’s demagoguery and cynical flip-flopping, nothing of the sort occurred. In fact, all Ankara’s threats and ultimatums melted into thin air, even as the Trump administration’s representative, Tillerson, explicitly reiterated the following points from the very heart of the Turkish capital: firstly, US will not withdraw from strategically important Mambij in Syria; secondly, it will not cease support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (which Ankara claims is an extension of the Turkish-based PKK); and thirdly, that Washington will not hand over Gulen unless Turkey submits tangible and substantiated evidence.

On top of the foregoing “No”s, Tillerson reiterated his government’s grave concerns over the deterioration in human rights, freedom of expression, judicial autonomy and rule of law in Turkey. Nor did he omit a reference to Turkey’s contract to purchase Russian S-400 missiles which, if it goes through, will not have positive repercussions for Turkey.

In the aftermath of that visit, the very media organs that, for a year, snapped and growled at the very mention of the word Washington have been put to the difficult task of coming up with face-saving formulas for the diplomatic defeat.

Eventually, one stealthily emerged in a government communique following the talks: the two countries had agreed to “normalise” relations between them. With some relief, the government-controlled press seized upon it and blazoned it across their headlines with no allusion to the US’s unaltered stances on Manbij, Syrian Kurds and Gulen.

In the process, the regularly broadcast “opinion polls” highlighting the Turkish people’s rejection of the US’s “anti-Turkish” policy of supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were forgotten, as were the appeals from Turkish business and entrepreneurial quarters to Ankara to burn bridges with the West and turn eastward towards Asia and the Pacific.

Naturally, opposition forces did not miss the opportunity to express their views on this humiliating development. Social media abounded with satirical quips about how the mighty Erdogan, in pseudo-Ottoman warrior garb, was forced into retreat by the power that, if it wished, could get Turkey booted out of NATO.

As Erdogan knows this very well, his bombast was, as always, pitched for the gallery and geared to attain his political ends at home.

As for that “Ottoman slap” that Erdogan had promised to deliver, neither Tillerson nor anyone else in Washington appears to be feeling the sting. In fact, if anyone’s face is smarting at the moment, it is Turkey’s thanks to Erdogan’s bluster and bravado style of brinksmanship.

One of the most widely circulated video clips among opposition quarters at present is that in which US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, in a press briefing, describes the Turkish president’s threat as "funny". In response a reporter’s question as to whether "the US has experienced the Ottoman slap," Nauert smiled, took a moment to collect herself as journalists laughed, and said “As funny is it was… I’m not going to respond to every foreign leader’s comment.”

It was, perhaps, no coincidence that just the day after Tillerson's visit, SDP forces carried out a strike near the Kirikhan district of the Turkish Hatay province, which borders Syria. It was reported that the target was a military base where the invasion attacks against Afrin are coordinated. It was the first time that the SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, has claimed a cross-border attack on Turkish forces.

It is unlikely that this action could have taken place without a level of support from the Syrian regime. Damascus has allowed hundreds of SDF reinforcements to pass through parts of regime-controlled areas in order to reach Afrin and contribute to the defence of that canton against the Turkish invasion.

Contrary to Turkish propaganda, Turkish forces on the ground in Afrin are encountering stiff resistance, which is prolonging an operation that had been billed as a blitz campaign that would achieve immediate victory.

Observers suggest that, because of the growing complexity of the situation in Afrin, especially with the increasing involvement of the Russian-backed Syrian regime, Turkish forces are at risk of becoming inextricably bogged down. Adding weight to this possibility, Kurdish fighters, as natives of the area, are fighting on home ground and determined to defend their families, homes and villages, unlike the invading Turkish forces and their jihadist allies.

* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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