The strained relationship between Turkey and the U.S. appears unlikely to improve any time soon. There is simply too much of a backlog of unresolved issues for the situation to change for the better.
The visit to Ankara by the high level delegation, headed by President Donald Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton, did little to ameliorate tensions between the two capitals. To the contrary, it seems to have aggravated the situation further.
The atmosphere was already sullied before the visit when Bolton remarked in Israel, where he was prior to moving on to Turkey, that they would ensure Turkey does not attack the U.S.’s Syrian Kurdish allies.
Those allies of Washington’s are seen by Ankara as terrorists who pose an existential threat to Turkey’s security.
Bolton’s remark elicited a vitriolic response from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which, in its turn, undoubtedly went down badly in Washington.
Bolton is just as much a hardliner with regard to his conservative outlook as Erdogan. His views on the uselessness of the United Nations, the need to contain, Iran and defend Israel at any cost are well known.
Bolton’s political profile also makes it difficult for him to have much love for Erdogan’s Turkey.
By the same token, it does not require much insight to understand that Bolton is the type of American that Erdogan and his supporters despise. There is even more reason for them to hate him now.
Bolton has clearly been working hard to convince Trump not to leave Syria hastily, and to ensure the welfare of the Syrian Kurds against Turkey when U.S. forces eventually pull out of that country.
It appears that he, with support from others within the administration and congress, has convinced Trump in this regard too.
Put another way, the satisfaction Ankara derived from Trump’s announcement that they would be pulling out of Syria as soon as possible, has dissipated now that it is evident that this is not going to happen in the manner that the Erdogan government wants.
In many ways it is back to square one for Turkey. Aware of this, Erdogan is ratcheting up the rhetoric again and saying that Turkey’s military operation against the Kurdish YPG in northern Syria is just around the corner.
Despite Erdogan’s words, though, the same questions and doubts about such an operation that existed before Trump’s announcement about pulling out of Syria have resurfaced.
It still remains unclear how this operation will be carried out, if the departure of U.S. forces in Syria turns out to be a drawn-out affair; and if it is carried out what its scope true effectiveness will be.
It is clear that the operation Erdogan is threatening is going to be opposed by Washington under present conditions. The Trump administration has already stigmatized such an operation by suggesting that it will end with “the slaughter” Syrian Kurds.
Ankara rejects the idea that the U.S. backed YPG and its political wing the PYD represents the Kurds. It says these are terrorist outfits, and stresses that it has no beef with “its Kurdish brothers and sisters.”
Be that as it may, it has not convinced the U.S. or anyone in Europe in this regard. Let alone that, it has not even convinced Russia, the partner it relies on heavily in Syria, that the YPG and PYD are terrorist groups.
Developments clearly indicate that Turkey has lost the propaganda war in this regard, while the YPG and PYD have been elevated in Western minds to the level of the representatives of Syrian Kurds.
This is an unfavorable development for Turkey. It comes at a time when pressure is continuing for a constitutional arrangement to be hammered for the new Syria. Even Moscow says this will have to be all-inclusive, which means it will also have to factor in Syria’s Kurdish reality.
It seems that rather than developing broad and realistic policies for Syria, Ankara’s piecemeal approach to this crisis, based on reactive rather than proactive responses, will continue as it tries to cope with undesirable and unexpected situations that arise.
Another undesirable development for Ankara is the fact that Arab countries have started to break the ice with Damascus, and there is even talk of Syria being readmitted into the Arab League.
If and when that happens, it will signify a total defeat for Ankara, given its misplaced and overambitious initial plans for Syria which all went badly awry.
This will also force Erdogan to come to terms with the fact that his regional archenemy Bashar al Assad is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
Knowing how many Arab governments, most notably the Saudi Arabian and Egyptian governments, feel about Erdogan’s Turkey, further isolation for Ankara in the Middle East could be on the cards.
Rather than try and come out of this political and military quagmire with realistic policies, Ankara remains openly defiant and threatening, rather than diplomatic and flexible.
President Theodore Roosevelt is known to have explained his approach to diplomacy by famously saying, “speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.”
The tone out of Turkey is anything but soft when it comes to foreign policy. As to how big its stick is, we will have to wait and see…