Manbij and beyond
Turkey-U.S. deal to clear the YPG out of the Syrian town is no reason to celebrate, yet.
Last week, Turkey and the United States appeared to make a breakthrough in their longstanding spat over the presence of the YPG in Syria’s Manbij. After a June 4 meeting between Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu and his counterpart, Mike Pompeo, the two sides announced that they had reached a deal that would see the Kurdish militia, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization because of its ties to the outlawed PKK, evacuate the city under the supervision of Turkish and American forces. The details remain murky but on the surface it appears Turkey has scored a diplomatic win, securing all of its demands at no visible cost to its own interests in Syria. But our chief political scientist advises caution. U.S.-Turkey relations remain fraught and the deal marks only one small step forward in what is a tangled web of geopolitical tensions. Is this progress or simply a rest stop in what has been years of deteriorating relations?
►Months ago, you suggested a deal l ke th s would be the best solut on for Manb j. Yet t seems the U.S. and Turkey are not qu te on the same page. What challenges do you see to th s deal’s mplementat on?
Turkey and the U.S. have been trying find a way for the U.S. to honour its commitment regarding Manbij without undermining its military capabilities in Syria, which is heavily reliant on its cooperation with the YPG. We now see the emergence of an agreement, though agreement might be too strong a word. There seems to be an agreement or maybe a framework. Turkey, for example, believes that it has some kind of agreed upon timeline, but if you listen to the Americans, they seem not to be bound by a timeline but by a moving step by step approach. That is, you complete an agreed upon step and only then you move to the next step. This approach may render the process longer than the timeframe the Turks had in mind. There is another problematic possibility that has been referred to in the news, but that is (probably) not a part of the agreement: this is the idea that somehow the U.S. would try to get the consent of the YPG at every stage of the deal’s implementation. Of course, from the Turkish perspective, this is totally unacceptable because it leaves the agreement subject to the veto of the YPG. If true, this is going to be problematic. But, maybe, what the agreement reveals is that both sides are now aware that unless they respond to each other’s concerns one way or another, their relations are moving in an irreparable direction. One has to remember that Manbij is part of a much broader package for Turkey. At the moment, Turkish forces are also operating in northern Iraq from where the YPG receives logistical and strategic support. So, as the situation evolves, there will be more problems, especially when you consider the fact that Syrian forces are now planning to move into some areas which the Americans are currently holding. We’re far from reaching a harmonious state of affairs. Nevertheless, I would still emphasize the fact that the two sides have succeeded in producing at least the semblance of an agreement to calm things down and not allow relations to move to an even more tension
►S gn f cant problems rema n. Th s lack of clar ty seems to dog Turkey-U.S. relat ons n general. Why can’t the two s des commun cate more conc sely?
The problem is that when relations get tense, parties stop listening to each other and take the complaints of the other side less seriously. This only serves to make problems worse. Let’s take a specific example: The American congress puts limits on arms sales. With regards to Patriot missiles, which Turkey was interested in purchasing, the question was disallowing the transfer of technology, the high costs, and the necessity of congressional approval which, taken together, would have meant a highly unreliable supply system of a critical weapons system that Turkey feels it needs. So, Turkey turned to the acquisition of the sophisticated Russian S-400 system. There is nothing shocking in this. One has to recognize the fact that when a country becomes a member of an alliance, it does not submit its entire existence to it; it may pursue other goals and it may also develop some instruments of security outside of the alliance, particularly at a time when the reliability of some partners is in question. As regards NATO, the American commitment to defend Europe is already under question. What Turkey is doing is understandable but apparently the Americans are having a hard time understanding it.
►Every country has ts own strateg c nterests, n other words, and they don’t l ne up all the t me, as s the case n Manb j. But for cooperat on to happen, nterests do need to al gn to some degree. Do the U.S. and Turkey have mutual nterests n Syr a?
At the very general level you can say that their strategic interests are aligned. Both sides are interested, for example, in having a peaceful Middle East. But beyond that, in terms of how to achieve that goal, there seems not to be particularly strong agreement. This is in marked contrast to earlier times when everyone agreed on the Soviet threat that rendered it easier to work together. Now, in Syria, Turkey sees the YPG/PKK as the number one threat; the U.S. sees Daesh. There’s also a difference in how they think stability should be achieved more broadly in the region. The American approach is oriented toward opposing forces of change. The U.S. has been trying to establish the status quo ante, as we’ve seen in the case of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Those who think differently, like Qatar, which Turkey supports, are being ostracized by America’s closest friends.
►Can the Turkey-U.S. relat onsh p mprove n th s k nd of uneasy, strateg cally compl cated env ronment? Can the two be fr ends?
In response to the first question, I would say yes because the Middle East is not the only area where the U.S. and Turkey have mutual interests. But we should not try to define the relationship in dichotomies like friends or not friends. It’s best to shy away from such labels with imprecise contents. The trend is away from the earlier period of American domination, during which the goals of NATO partners were fully aligned with those of the U.S. against the Soviet Bloc. Those days are gone. The best we can hope for is a relationship in which we can communicate, handle problems with negotiation, admit to the fact that we have differences but try to balance those differences by emphasizing the common interests by talking to each other and making sure that the difficult side of the relationship does not come to dominate the entire relationship.