WEST KURDISTAN (SYRIA) – Manbij holds the key to improved Turkish-US ties

Semih Idiz July 10, 2018 – AL MONITOR –  Article Summary – Ankara is worried the United States and Russia may be working on a deal in Syria that will be to Turkey’s disadvantage.

Although attention in Turkey turned to domestic politics in the lead-up to the June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections, Ankara’s focus will be back on Turkish-US ties now that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been sworn in as Turkey’s first all-powerful executive president and announced his new Cabinet.Developments in northern Syria, particularly in the city of Manbij, will continue to determine the course of these relations, which are already beset by many disagreements.

There are also disturbing signs for Ankara following US media reports that Washington and Moscow may be working behind the scenes for an end to the Syrian crisis that may not be in Turkey’s interests.

Turkish officials will be closely following the results of the summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16.Eyes will also be on Brussels this week, where Erdogan is due to meet Trump on the sidelines of the NATO summit. Diplomatic observers will be looking for any sign of a breakthrough that indicates the sides are willing to take major steps to improve their strained relationship.

Developments in Manbij, however, will hold the key to better ties, given Ankara’s determination to clear the city of US-supported fighters of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Ankara says YPG fighters are terrorists allied with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).The Turkish side is impatient about moving to the next stage of the “road map” for Manbij, which was negotiated with Washington before the Turkish elections with a view to averting a standoff between Turkish and US forces in the region.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spelled out Turkey’s expectations last week after it became clear that Erdogan had won the elections, His remarks showed that Turkey is not ready to tone down its demands.Ankara insists that the accord signed with Washington on June 4 foresees the departure of the YPG from Manbij, to be followed by Turkish forces entering the city to conduct joint patrols with US forces.

The only joint action by Turkish and US forces so far has been what the sides say are “coordinated but independent patrols” along the line of demarcation on the outskirts of Manbij. This falls short of what Ankara wants, although it helped defuse some tension between the sides.Cavusoglu, who will retain his position in Erdogan’s new Cabinet, told the official Anadolu Agency last week that nine coordinated patrols had been conducted to date, and said YPG fighters had withdrawn from areas where these took place.

He underlined, however, that “this does not mean the YPG had moved out of Manbij.” Indicating that there were problems with Washington over implementing the road map, Cavusoglu said the time had come for the YPG to evacuate Manbij totally and for Turkish forces to enter the city.While acknowledging the road map worked out with Turkey as an important step, Washington has provided few details about what was actually agreed upon. Meanwhile, statements from the US side have not always been in tune with those from Ankara.For instance, US Army Col. Sean Ryan, a spokesman for US forces in Syria, told reporters in a teleconference that Turkish and American forces were not conducting joint patrols in Manbij.

“They’re independent coordinations, they’re not joint patrols,” Ryan said. “I can tell you that Turkish soldiers will not go into Manbij.” A complicating factor for the Trump administration, which appears keen on arriving at some arrangement with Turkey in Syria, is that not everyone in Washington is convinced that this is the way to go forward.

In view of Turkey’s efforts to forge better ties with Russia, many in the US capital question Ankara’s commitment to its alliance with the United States by pointing to its determination to purchase Russian S-400 missile defense systems, despite Washington’s objections.The continued incarceration of American pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey on terrorism charges, which Washington maintains are baseless, is another issue overshadowing ties.Turkey, for its part, is angry over the US refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric accused of masterminding the failed coup attempt against Erdogan in 2016.Washington says there is insufficient evidence implicating Gulen. Many on Capitol Hill claim Brunson is being held hostage by Turkey to force Gulen’s extradition, a claim Ankara rejects.

Lindsey Graham, a Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is one of those spearheading the campaign against Turkey in the US Congress. He also supports sanctions against Ankara and wants a ban on the delivery of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey if the deal for S-400 systems goes ahead.Graham was in Turkey recently with a congressional delegation to demand Brunson’s release. He was also received by Erdogan in Ankara, although he appears to have made little headway.Graham later traveled to Manbij, where he told Reuters that the US military presence in the region was to Turkey’s advantage. He warned Ankara against any more incursions into northern Syria. He said if Turkey did so, it would find itself in a quagmire.

Hinting at what may be Washington’s take on the road map worked out with Turkey, Graham also said that “it should be sufficient” for Ankara that YPG fighters move out of Manbij to the east of the Euphrates River.In his interview with the Anadolu Agency, Cavusoglu made it clear that Turkey expects the YPG to evacuate all the territories it currently holds with US support east of the Euphrates, and not just Manbij.Yasar Yakis, a former foreign minister and a co-founder of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), of which he was expelled from over his discordant views, remains optimistic about Turkish-American ties, despite existing problems.

“In the continuously fluctuating Ankara-Washington relations, we are now going through a period where those who favor the improvement of ties are having greater influence,” Yakis wrote in an article for Arab News. “Many in the US warn the White House of the risks of losing NATO ally Turkey at this critical juncture, when the Middle East is in turmoil.”

Yakis also believes that the road map for Manbij “seems to be on track.” Nevertheless, he argued that the way ahead will be difficult, pointing to last week’s explosion in Manbij during an anti-Turkish demonstration that killed one person and left many injured.“This demonstration is bad news for the difficult task awaiting the Turkish troops when they move into the city,” Yakis wrote.

Meanwhile, Ankara is concerned by media reports that Washington and Moscow are working on a deal for southern Syria that is predicated on reducing Iranian influence. The worry is that arrangements may be worked out by the United States and Russia over Turkey’s head. Neither Washington nor Moscow is averse to giving the Kurds some degree of autonomy in Syria, which adds to Ankara’s concerns. Retired Brig. Gen. Naim Baburoglu believes the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki could produce adverse results for Turkey, including increased control of the area west of the Euphrates by the regime, and an autonomous region for the Kurds controlled by the YPG east of the Euphrates.

In an article for Gercek Gundem, Baburoglu argued that this would increase the threat to Turkey even more. “Looked at from this perspective, the center of the main threat to Turkey lies east of the Euphrates,” Baburoglu wrote.He added that vital questions remained relating to the disarmament and movement of 5,000-7,000 YPG fighters from Manbij to the east of the Euphrates. “The answer to these two questions must be made clear,” Baburoglu wrote.

There is no indication that clear answers will be forthcoming anytime soon, or that when they do come they will be to Ankara’s liking. The Turkish press is even reporting that the United States is providing more weapons to the YPG.

Putting Turkish-US ties back on track may be more difficult than some believe, given the number of differences that exist between the sides.

Semih Idiz is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. He is a journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years. His opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. His articles have also been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.