Is it still worth talking to the Americans?

A recent proposal by the U.S. defense secretary to separate the YPG from the PKK and, as a matter of fact, make YPG militants fight the PKK was not just funny; it also showed that Washington is starting to understand that it is compelled to develop a new YPG policy.

Is it still worth talking to the Americans
Turkish National Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli (R) shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis (L) during NATO Defense Ministers' meeting in Brussels, Belgium on February 14, 2018. Anadolu Agency

Over the past week, three senior members of the Trump administration held meetings with their Turkish counterparts. U.S. National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster, followed by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, shared their concerns about Operation Olive Branch with Turkey and they were warned by the Turks to end their support for the People's Protection Units (YPG).

Keeping in mind that the Trump administration remains confused and fragmented, it is unlikely that the most recent round of talks between Turkey and the United States will yield concrete results. It is quite likely that Gen. McMaster told his Turkish counterpart that President Donald Trump took special interest in Turkey's concerns.

But actions speak louder than words. Although President Trump promised the Turks that he would stop supporting YPG militants in Syria, the Pentagon plans to spend $550 million to train and equip the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a front for the YPG. When pressed about this contradiction, U.S. officials recite the same talking point: "There are differences of opinion between the various government agencies in Washington."

To be clear, no meeting between Turkish and U.S. officials over the last five years has yielded positive results. Since May 2013, when Turkey had a fallout with the Obama administration, the relationship has not been fully repaired. As a matter of fact, the bilateral relationship has been strained by differences of opinion about the future of the Bashar Assad regime and subsequently Washington's partnership with YPG militants. Due to those disagreements, the distrust between Turkey and the United States has been deepening.

Nor does it seem to matter with who Turkish officials speak with in Washington. The results are always the same: The Americans make promises behind closed doors with no intention of keeping them and continue taking steps that place Turkish interests at risk. In the end, the Turks are left with nothing but an obligatory recognition of their concerns and requests for continued dialogue to overcome differences of opinion. The Turkish leadership waited a whole year in the hopes that Trump would make an effort to repair Washington's relationship with Ankara. Had the U.S. accepted Turkey's offer to liberate Raqqa together, a fresh start would have been possible. Instead, the White House rubber-stamped the Obama administration's Syria plans.

Operation Olive Branch, which Turkey launched on Jan. 20 to eliminate national security threats emanating from Afrin, was a development that promised to break the deadlock in diplomatic negotiations. Today, U.S. officials continue to assure their Turkish counterparts that they understand Turkey's security concerns and ask them to not undermine the fight against Daesh. But the difference is that bilateral talks will have to yield results, positive or negative, without delay. After all, Turkey's military operation against PKK/YPG militants set in motion a number of developments in Syria. Bashar Assad and Iranian-backed militias are making an effort to seize energy fields in Deir ez-Zor that are currently controlled by the YPG. Although the Americans have responded strongly to those efforts, it is important to note that the various stakeholders in Syria are turning against the YPG militants.

Another problem for Washington is the U.S. Central Command's (CENTCOM) apparent inability to keep the PKK/YPG in line after outsourcing to them the fight against Daesh. Unless the Americans come up with a quick solution, a large number of U.S.-trained YPG militants will move to Afrin and end up being killed by the Turkish military. To make matters worse, frustration with Turkey's military involvement in Afrin could result in a new wave of PKK/YPG attacks against Turkey – which would force the U.S. to choose between Turkey and the YPG. A recent proposal by the U.S. defense secretary to separate the YPG from the PKK and, as a matter of fact, make YPG militants fight the PKK was not just funny; it also showed that Washington is starting to understand that it is compelled to develop a new YPG policy. Meanwhile, Mr. Tillerson's claim that the U.S. had not supplied heavy weapons to YPG militants suggests that future proposals will be shaped by cosmetic distinctions. By contrast, Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli's proposal to exclude YPG militants from the SDF makes more sense. Turkey could be willing to restructure the SDF, which would be reinforced by Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen fighters approved by Turkish authorities.

In the foreseeable future, U.S. officials could try to stall Turkey by making new offers and issuing thinly-veiled threats. Either way, it is important to understand that things are already in motion. As Operation Olive Branch goes forward, Ankara will find a way to get results from diplomatic negotiations with the United States. Let us hope that the Trump administration will take the advice of reasonable people in Washington, who have been urging the U.S. to revise its Syria/YPG policy in light of Turkish concerns, instead of warmongers recommending to the U.S. to "discipline" Turkey.

Source: Daily Sabah

Burhanettin Duran
Burhanettin Duran received his B.A. in Political Science and International Relations from Bogazici University in 1993 and obtained his Ph.D in Political Science from Bilkent University in 2001. Currently, Dr. Duran is a Professor at Ibn Haldun University and the General Coordinator of SETA Foundation.