Taken at face value, the joint press statement issued by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu after their meeting in Washington on Monday could be the turning point in U.S.-Turkey relations which Çavuşoğlu touted.
Their commitment to “addressing their common concerns in a spirit of allied partnership” sounded inspirational but fell wide of the truth. What about Fethullah Gülen, whose continued presence in the U.S. is a festering sore for Turkey, and Andrew Brunson, the American pastor held by Turkey since October 2016 on the trumped up charges of membership of a terrorist organization and attempting to overthrow the Turkish parliament and government?
Their joint resolve to “fight terrorism in all its forms and manifestations” begged the essential question – what to do about the mainly Kurdish SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and in particular, the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) militia, whose continued support makes it possible for the U.S. to combat ISIL in Syria?
The issue which Çavuşoğlu had come to Washington to resolve was Manbij, seized from ISIL by the YPG with U.S. support in August 2016, which sticks out like a sore thumb in the enclave otherwise seized by Turkey in Operation Euphrates Shield. They endorsed a “road map,” which should ensure security and stability in Manbij, but there are different interpretations as to what this entails.
After Mike Pompeo’s hapless predecessor, Rex Tillerson, was closeted alone for more than three hours with President Erdoğan with Çavuşoğlu as interpreter in February, Çavuşoğlu said they had reached “a common understanding” on the stabilization of Manbij and the Kurdish areas east of the Euphrates. Before Monday’s meeting, Turkish sources claimed that the YPG would withdraw from Manbij within a month and Çavuşoğlu claimed by the end of the summer, but on Tuesday the YPG announced it would leave Manbij.
However, the main issue, which is still unclear, is what agreement will be reached about the Kurdish cantons east of the Euphrates, now that Afrin has fallen and Turkey has extended its administration in Syria to the area west of the Euphrates. Three days before Turkey’s attack on Afrin, Secretary of State Tillerson redefined U.S. policy in Syria and stated that the main aim was the defeat of ISIS and al-Qaida, to which end the U.S. would maintain a military presence in Syria. Another aim was to diminish Iranian influence in Syria.
In November JINSA (Jewish Institute for National Security of America) and its Gemunder Center Iran Task Force published a report on “Countering Iranian Expansion in Syria.” The report endorsed President Trump’s rejection of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and called for a comprehensive strategy to counter Iran’s growing regional aggression. It stated that the Euphrates is the dividing line and envisaged that the U.S. and its Syrian surrogates, primarily the SDF, could block Iran’s attempt to gain control of the most important land routes from Iran through Iraq to the heart of Syria, Lebanon and the Golan.
This is exemplified by the attempt in February by Iran-backed forces to wrest control of the oil-rich Deir ez-Zor province from the SDF. Last week, in an interview with Russia Today Syrian president Bashar al-Assad stated he was prepared to liberate the third of Syria held by the SDF by force, which caused the Pentagon to warn against attacking US forces or its coalition partners.
This is why Trump’s speech in Ohio in March, when he declared, “We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon,” was taken as a declaration of foreign policy and effectively placed the U.S. in a double bind.
At the same time, Russia has also undermined its previous good relations with Syria’s Kurds by first allowing Turkey into Syria with Operation Euphrates Shield and then giving the green light to Operation Olive Branch in Afrin. Now the Turkish military has set up its 12th observation post in Idlib province, Turkey is well on the way to becoming ensconced in Syria.
Last month at a meeting with Bashar al-Assad Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke of the withdrawal of foreign armed forces from Syria, which meant Russia, Iran, Turkey and the U.S. among others. As Russia is the power broker in Syria, perhaps it can help the U.S. with its dilemma: should I stay or should I go?