US and Turkey on a Collision Course- WSJ
Yet, on several key issues of this complicated relationship between the two North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, a head-on collision with potentially unpredictable consequences seems more and more possible.Wall Street Journal acknowledged PKK / YPG affiliation.
These flashpoints include Washington’s handling of Mr. Erdogan’s Pennsylvania-based nemesis, cleric Fethullah Gulen. Even more important is the growing American support for Syrian Kurdish forces affiliated with the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a group designated as terrorist by Ankara and Washington alike.
|PKK and friends at Tabqa Dam, Syria|
“There had been enthusiasm in Ankara, and hope that a reset [with Washington] can be envisioned,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who heads the Edam think tank in Istanbul. “Today there is an awakening that the relationship with Trump and the Trump administration may not unfold the way Ankara had initially hoped for.”
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the head of the House intelligence committee, put it less diplomatically in an appearance this month on Fox News. “Our relationship with Turkey is strained and I think it’s going to become even more complicated as we begin to try to get ISIS out of Iraq and Syria,” Mr. Nunes said.
Over the past two years, Ankara also seethed at the U.S. aid for PYD (YPG) in northern Syria. Instead of reversing that policy, as Ankara had expected, Washington appears to be doubling down on support for the Syrian Kurdish group. In early March, the Pentagon went as far as deploying American forces between PYD and Turkish lines near the northern Syrian town of Manbij, effectively blocking a planned offensive by Turkey and its Syrian allies. Then, in recent days, the U.S.—in its most high-profile military operation in Syria so far—airlifted the PYD and its allied Arab fighters across the Euphrates, to the strategic Tabqa Dam near Raqqa.State Gov
And I thank the foreign minister for his hospitality today.
QUESTION: (In Turkish.)
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, those were the subjects of our conversations today, to have an exchange of views regarding the most – the best way forward to secure areas inside of Syria, create zones of stabilization, to allow the return of people to Syria and to set the stage for a longer-term political solution. I think the exchange of views was very helpful to both of us today and we will continue to work together on the way forward.
In terms of the future of Raqqa, we look forward to the liberation of Raqqa and the return of its control to local – to its local citizens, its authorities, and to putting it under local control for security so that all of the Syrians who had to flee that area can return.
QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, how do you convince the Turkish Government that partnering with Kurdish YPG rebels is essential in defeating ISIS when the government here calls that partnership an unacceptable one with a terrorist group?
And Mr. Foreign Minister, your governor has been highly critical of the United States over the arrest of Mehmet Atilla this week, saying you should have at least received advance notice of it. How has that impacted your discussions here today, and how do you respond to charges that Americans like Pastor Andrew Brunson are being arrested here to be used as a bargaining chip for the extradition of Pastor Gulen?
FOREIGN MINISTER CAVUSOLGLU: Can you repeat the first thing, that I couldn’t get the first thing that --
QUESTION: Andrew Brunson.
FOREIGN MINISTER CAVUSOGLU: Andrew Brunson and who else?
QUESTION: The arrest of Andrew Brunson. Oh, Mehmet Atilla – his arrest in the United States.
FOREIGN MINISTER CAVUSOGLU: Oh, okay.
QUESTION: Thank you.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, as I indicated in the previous response to the question, we had a very good discussion and conversation today both at the prime minister’s level and the president around an exchange of views of how best to secure areas going forward in Syria. We’re exploring a number of options and alternatives and we had a good discussion around those and there’s additional, I think, consideration on both sides yet to come.
FOREIGN MINISTER CAVUSOGLU: (In Turkish.)
SECRETARY TILLERSON: In response to the question regarding the notification, that is certainly the intent on the part of the consul office here, is to advise anyone when there’s been a change of status of their visa if we’re able to reach them. So that is a normal procedure.
FOREIGN MINISTER CAVUSOGLU: (In Turkish.)
QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon. Lesley Wroughton from Reuters. This is a question for Secretary Tillerson. The minister said that the – that you – that the United States has admitted there’s no difference between the YPG and the PKK. Do you believe that you have overcome your differences over this issue and that you can move forward concretely in Syria in the fight to retake Raqqa, given – if you’ve overcome those differences?
The other question I have is the previous administration said that Syrian President Assad must go. Nikki Haley said yesterday that the fight in Syria cannot move forward without the issue of Assad being resolved. How do you see that issue being moved forward as you move more aggressively on Raqqa?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, again, I think on the question of how to carry forward with the defeat of Daesh/ISIS in Syria, let there be no mistake, just so we can be clear, there is no space between Turkey and the United States in our commitment to defeat Daesh, to defeat ISIS. Not just in Syria and Iraq, but as members of the greater coalition to defeat Daesh, anywhere Daesh shows its face on planet Earth, they will be confronted by the coalition to defeat them on the battlefield, as well as in the cyberspace and in the social media space.Tillerson regarding his talks with Turkish leadership inc. Cavusoglu.
So in terms of the tactics that are necessary to achieve that outcome, that is why we meet. That is why we meet with our very important partners here, as well as other very important coalition members who are engaged directly in the military activities in Iraq and Syria. So there is more discussion yet to be had regarding the way forward. What we discussed today were options that are available to us. They are difficult options, let me be very frank. These are not easy decisions. They are difficult choices that have to be made. So this has been very good, the conversations today were very frank, very candid, and we will be taking those conversations away. I know the foreign minister and the president and the prime minister, they will consider all of the exchanges we had today, but ultimately, Turkey and the United States will stay together in the fight as part of the broader coalition to defeat Daesh.
Difficult options. Not easy decisions. Difficult choices have to be made.
The Trump administration and Turkey appeared no closer Thursday to resolving a dispute over the Kurds' role in defeating the Islamic State group in Syria, as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited America's often nettlesome NATO ally for the first time.
Although the disagreement centers on tactics for a long-planned assault on IS' self-declared capital of Raqqa, Turkey's long-term security is also at stake. For decades, Turkey has battled Kurdish militants inside its own borders. So Turkey is loath to tolerate the U.S. partnering against IS with Syrian Kurdish fighters instead of Turkey's own military and affiliated Syrian forces.
"Let me be very frank: These are not easy decisions," Tillerson said after meeting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other top Turkish officials in Ankara.
The dispute has deepened a divide between the two allies that have agreed on little in recent years.
Turkey accuses the Kurdish fighters known as the YPG of being an extension of a Kurdish insurgent force within Turkey that the U.S. also considers a terrorist organization. Turkey says the U.S. is backing one terror group to fight another, to the detriment of Turkish security, after spending years allowing Syria's civil war to spiral out of control. But the U.S. considers Syrian Kurdish fighters the most effective force at fighting IS and critical to liberating Raqqa.
And despite Trump and Erdogan's talk of improving U.S.-Turkish ties, the countries continue to clash over many matters, including the fate of a Pennsylvania-based cleric that Turkey blames for a failed coup attempt last July.
Washington hasn't announced which fighters will lead the Raqqa operation, (no need for an announcement) though signs point to a prominent role for the Kurdish-led group, which also includes Arab fighters. The U.S. airlifted hundreds of so-called Syrian Democratic Forces behind enemy lines in Syria last week in what officials described as a key step toward Raqqa.Re: Gulen
Tillerson said he and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu explored several ideas for the Raqqa operation, signaling no agreement. The countries will discuss the matter further, he said, insisting each is committed to defeating IS.
Yet Cavusoglu struck a far less sanguine tone, declaring that U.S. support for the Kurds already had damaged ties.
"It has negatively affected the Turkish people's sentiments toward the United States," he said in Turkish.
Also hanging over Tillerson's trip was Turkey's demand for the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the cleric Turkey blames for instigating last year's failed coup. Gulen denies involvement. The U.S. has said Turkey hasn't provided sufficient proof of his culpability.
|Tillerson and Cavusoglu|
Cavusoglu insisted Turkey had provided plenty of evidence and said U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions committed to "evaluate the documents meticulously." At a minimum, he said Turkey wants the U.S. to arrest Gulen while weighing the extradition.Tillerson didn't budge on F Gulen. Not a shocker!
Cavusoglu: "We are expecting concrete steps," he said. "We need to take mutual steps to put relations with the United States back on track."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held a day of longer-than-planned meetings with Turkish leaders in Ankara on Thursday, but the most senior Trump administration official to visit the crucial NATO ally seemed to make little headway in salvaging an increasingly troubled relationship.Washington and Ankara disagree sharply over how to wage war against Islamic State militants in Syria, with the U.S. backing Kurdish militias whom the Turks disdain as terrorists.Although Tillerson sought to put the best face possible after the day’s drawn-out talks, it was clear no agreement was reached.
He acknowledged that “difficult choices have to be made.”
Tillerson and ErdoganIn their meeting, Erdogan reportedly warned Tillerson that Washington must rely on “right and legitimate” actors in the fight in Syria, code for Turkish demands that Kurdish militias be sidelined. Turkey believes that the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units and Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by the U.S. in northern Syria, are merely extensions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a separatist group considered by Turkey and its allies — including the U.S. — to be a terrorist organization.Turkey has said it could provide boots on the ground in an offensive on Raqqah — if the Kurdish forces are kept away.That offer was made long ago- previously covered here at the blog.
Heavy use of the Kurdish forces was part of an Obama administration plan to re-take Raqqah, which now appears to be the blueprint for what would shape up as a Trump administration offensive. Turkish officials had held out hope that President Trump would make a clean break with the Obama-era alliance with Kurdish forces.
Standing at Tillerson’s side on Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu blasted the Obama strategy and claimed that even American officials recognized that the militias were in cahoots with Kurdish terrorists.Tillerson remained blank faced as Cavusoglu railed. And America’s top diplomat repeatedly sidestepped questions about support for the Kurdish militias.Turkey has handed over thousands of pages and dozens of boxes of evidence on Gulen, and on Thursday Cavusoglu repeated a demand that the cleric be detained pending a final decision. “We are expecting some concrete steps on [Gulen]… some temporary arrest should be made,” he said.