Turkey in Syria versus the US

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Saturday 1 Dec 2018

Ankara’s obsession with the Kurdish question has again pitched Turkey against Washington, as well as Moscow

Hulusi Akar, Jim Mattis
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar (L) speaks with US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis during a NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium on October 4, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

“The climate of suspicion and mistrust between the two countries is palpable,” observed the Arabic edition of the Recep Tayyip Erdogan Turkish news site Ahval, on 24 November, in an article on the growing gap between the outlooks of Turkey and the US on the Syrian and Kurdish questions.

Ankara has been working relentlessly to destroy Washington’s strategic relations with Syrian Kurds, but its efforts have been futile. Washington, which is in the stronger position, is not prepared to sacrifice the huge amounts of funds, plus the 2,000 troops, it has invested in the battle to eradicate the Islamic State (IS) group from Syria and to ensure that it never returns, so it will continue to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for some time to come.

This is the problem of the regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which dreads the emergence of a nascent separatist entity the spectre of which the Turks have fought for decades.

It is obvious to all that the relative ease-up in Turkish-US relations following the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson has quickly soured.

Tensions have resurfaced over a number of issues and the veneer of diplomatic courtesies is cracking once again as yet another confrontation adds to a long train of crises.

On Wednesday, 21 November, US Defense Secretary James Mattis announced that the US military would be setting up observation posts in northern Syria as a means to keep the forces that the US supports in Syria focused on the fight against IS.

On Saturday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar stated that this decision would “further complicate the already complicated situation in the region”. He added that Turkish forces would take all necessary actions to deter any threat from across the border.

Akar was alluding to the US-backed SDF and, specifically, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that leads it and that Ankara regards as a terrorist organisation.

In his statement, he said that his country had notified Washington numerous times about its concerns in this regard. He did not say that Washington shrugged off his warnings regarding the observation posts, as it has shrugged off many previous ones.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, for his part, issued an ultimatum. He gave the US until the end of the year to implement the Manbij roadmap, which the two sides agreed on six months ago.

If it failed to do so the consequences would be grave, he warned. In an interview with CNN Turk, the foreign minister said that the roadmap would lead to the evacuation of the YPG, which Ankara claims is an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), from that region in northern Syria.

The hardline stances seem curious given how the observation posts were presented as a sign of growing cooperation.

They are designed to “make sure that the people we have fighting down in the [Middle Euphrates River Valley] are not drawn up that fight,” Mattis said, referring to frequent clashes with Turkish and Turkish-backed forces that diverted Kurdish fighters from the offensive against IS.

The observation posts will be visible day and night, so there will be no room for mistake and accidentally targeting US forces.

Their purpose, he said, was in order to be able to “call the Turks and warn them if we see something coming out of an area we’re operating in,” adding: “We are going to track any threat that we can spot going up into Turkey.”

Yet the pro-government media vehemently denied that this was Mattis’s intent and once again pulled out the usual litany of grievances against the US: its ostensible “collusion” with the failed coup attempt in July 2016, its “harbouring” of the Islamist preacher Fethullah Gulen, the alleged mastermind of that coup, and, of course, its support for “terrorists” (ie the YPG) in Syria.

Indeed, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu came in on cue, over the weekend, in order to charge that the US had turned Syria and Iraq into a “laboratory of terrorism” and that the US “has been bargaining with terrorist organisations over oil reserves in Iraq and Syria, saying “75 per cent of it will be mine and you’ll get 25 per cent”.

Alluding to Turkish military offences in northern Syria, he cautioned against the mistake of thinking that the “new Turkey” was the same as the “old Turkey”.

Behind the fiery rhetoric, it appears that Turkey has taken another slide into the Syrian quagmire.

After the recent chlorine bomb attack against Aleppo which, according to Russia, was launched from an area in the de-escalation zone controlled by Al-Nusra Front, the glare of suspicion immediately fell on Ankara, which is supposed to guarantee that the jihadist militants uphold the ceasefire agreement.

The spate of denials failed to convince an angry Russia, which bombarded the positions of the insurgents that Ankara funds and arms, and announced that it would “talk to Turkey”.

On 25 November, the Turkish Defence Ministry announced that Hulusi Akar had phone meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu in which the two discussed the situation in Idlib and other concerns.

Ankara needs to placate its powerful neighbour to the north while tensions seethe with its powerful NATO ally.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 29 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Turkey in Syria versus the US

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