Clash or accord?
When Turkish President Erdoğan meets the President of the USA, Donald Trump, on May 18, the fog which blurs the future of the relations between the tow allies will disperse.
The key issue on the agenda, from Erdoğan’s standpoint, is what will happen with the spectacular ‘Zarrab case’, a Turkish-Iranian goldtrader, who stands charged in New York Federal Court. Zarrab was a key figure in Erdoğan’s close circle, and the case indicates allegations of involvemenet of the close members of his family.
Forget about the rest for the moment.
What’s at stake in Syria and with ISIS is secondary for Erdoğan, they are simply bargaining chips in his talks with Trump, which he places on the table as elements of swap, with the condition that, if Zarrab case is ‘watered down’ or, better, ‘evaporated’, Erdoğan will be ready to accept the alliance that is built between the PYD/YPG and the USA (also Russia).
But it seems that the swap Erdoğan hopes for is endangered. Trump has made up his mind – most probably by the men he chose from Pentagon into his administration – and he will be set to tell Erdoğan that, no matter what, the march to the ISIS stronghold Raqqa is going to happen with the Kurdish YPG combat units as the main force on ground.
Yet, it was a long process which kept the ground tense, and helped encourage Turkish Armed Forces to flex some muscles at the Syrian-Turkish border, with airstrikes against the YPG. That led to the American protests, and there are now US armored vehicles and soldiers patrolling the border. Two allies are at odds with each other, when an enemy is well-defined.
Here is the background of how the discord developed between Ankara and Washington DC, as described by Foreign Policy:
”In the closing days of the Obama administration, the Pentagon made a similar request to arm the Kurds for a Raqqa operation but President Barack Obama decided it was too big a step to take so close to Trump entering office, especially given Turkey’s stance.
Senior officials in the Obama administration and military officers briefed Trump’s aides on the plan days before he was sworn in and urged them to move quickly with the operation.
“We viewed this as a high priority and one of the top national security issues in our transition discussions,” said one former White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. But the Trump White House chose to hold off and has been conducting a review of war strategy since January, despite the president’s vows to defeat Islamic State “quickly.”
Ankara, in the meantime, has lobbied Washington to pursue a different approach that would rely on Turkish troops deployed in Syria and a largely untested Arab force, the Syrian Free Army.
But U.S. officials “have explored what Turkey had to offer and found that it did not have that much to contribute militarily,” said Linda Robinson, an analyst at the Rand Corporation who has advised American forces and recently returned from a visit to Syria with U.S. commanders.
During the Obama administration, senior officials also came away unimpressed with Turkey’s proposals.
Despite Turkey’s misgivings, the Trump administration has concluded that including Syrian Kurdish forces in the lead represents the only realistic way to push the Islamic State out of Raqqa, which the group has referred to as the capital of its “caliphate.” But to avoid aggravating relations with Ankara, the White House and the Pentagon chose to postpone any decision on Raqqa until after Turkey held its referendum last month.
Turkish warplanes also struck Kurdish forces in northern Syria late last month, killing 18 of the U.S.-backed fighters in a raid that occurred less than six miles from where American forces were based. The attack prompted the Pentagon to send another detachment of U.S. Army Rangers to the border as a buffer between the Kurds and Turkish forces.
Last week, the commander of U.S. European Command, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, told his Turkish counterpart Gen. Hulusi Akar that the strikes were dangerous, because Ankara gave U.S. forces less than an hour’s notice before the bombing began.
On Wednesday, one of Erdogan’s advisors suggested that the Americans could be struck by Turkish missiles, comments he quickly walked back the next day. Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon told FP the comment was “irresponsible and unacceptable.”
The angry words and the Turkish air strikes on Washington’s Kurdish allies in Syria underscore the risks of going ahead with the plan to take Raqqa, and the fragile state of U.S.-Turkish relations. The tensions will require delicate diplomacy to reassure Ankara, which fears the Kurds have been promised a possible independent state on Turkey’s southern border.
After months of training efforts, U.S. commanders are pinning their hopes on the mixed Kurdish-Arab contingent — known as the Syrian Democratic Forces — to take Raqqa. Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters to be aligned with the Kurdish PKK, which it regards as a terrorist group, and paints them both with the same brush. Washington, however, makes a distinction between the two groups.
At this late stage, U.S. officials are reluctant to scrap their plan and entertain a major role for forces trained by Turkey. One Pentagon official said that although the U.S.-trained forces are mixed, the Kurds occupy almost all of the leadership positions. Any move to introduce the Turkish-backed militias would complicate the operation, as the Turkish-backed force has previously attacked the Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
U.S. military officers say that Washington will ensure that Kurdish forces will not operate unilaterally or be allowed to rule over Raqqa once the Islamic State is forced out. They also say they are looking at options including rationing ammunition to Kurdish troops to allay Turkish concerns about a Kurdish militia stockpiling U.S.-supplied weapons to create an independent state.”
Erdoğan had sent three men of his closest circle – Chief of Staff, Gen Hulusi Akar; Chief Aide, Ibrahim Kalın and Intelligence Chief, Hakan Fidan – to Washington, but the President’s men seem not to have noted much progress in persuading their counterparts.
Now, once more, it is to be noted that Turkey is now squeezed tightly between the USA and Russia, both favouring Kurdish fighters in their battle against the common enemy: Jihadists.
As journalist Mahmut Bozarslan wrote in Al-Monitor:
”What is happening now resembles the days when the Kurdish autonomous region was being set up after the first Gulf War. The region emerged with US support despite Turkey’s fervent opposition. Today, we also have Russia on the stage. Both the United States and Russia clearly are not going to give up on the Kurds. The most likely scenario will be for Turkey to modify its policies accordingly.”
This is an open question. Erdoğan’s priorities differ from the remnants of the Turkish ‘inner state’ he has chosen to surround himself with. The forged US and Russian cooperation with the Syrian Kurds will shake his ground, leave him with a narrower room to operate in Ankara, if the advances towards Raqqa happen without Turkey.
Consequently, more to expect.
If Ankara is determined to pursue the same anti-Kurdish hard line, the tension is held, and the meeting in DC will define its dosage with uncertain consequences.