Dead On Arrival: Tillerson’s Failed Mission To Turkey

Even before US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Ankara for what can only be described as an “emergency meeting” with the Turkish leadership in order to attempt and prevent a further deterioration in bilateral relations, the stage was already set for failure.

Firstly, Turkey’s powerful Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated,

“Ties with the U.S. are at very critical point. We will either fix these relations or they will break completely”.

Cavusoglu also stated,

“The U.S. is not touching Daesh members in Syria as an excuse to continue working with YPG/PKK terrorist group”.

Cavusoglu’s statement was shortly followed by even stronger statements from Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who said,

“We have 911 kilometers of border with Syria. What is their [US’] connection with the Syrian border? They have already spent 550 million dollars [to help the YPG], but now they want to increase this figure to three billion. You say that you are fighting against Daesh. And how many Daesh members did you destroy? Those who fought against Daesh are now fighting against Turkey. No one has the right to use Daesh as an excuse. It’s time to finish this theater with Daesh, it’s time to remove the masks.

We are told: ‘If we are hit, we will respond.’ Those who say this, have never tried an Ottoman fist in their life.

If you say that the YPG is not a terrorist organization in our opinion if you are attacking a NATO ally, you should stand against it as a member of NATO”.

While Tillerson himself stated that the situation between Turkey and the US is “tough”, both sides set incredibly low expectations for the meeting.

As I stated,

“The best the US can offer Turkey is some sort of compromise based on high level horse trading, although it is not clear just what the US could offer Turkey. With Washington refusing to withdraw from areas around Manbij, where Ankara promises to continue its anti-YPG Operation Olive Branch and with the US clearly unwilling to drop its Kurdish proxies, it would seem that the US has little to offer Turkey. Of course, the US could offer Turkey the extradition of wanted terrorist Fethullah Gulen who is currently exiled in the United States, but this too seems unlikely, not least because even the extradition of Gulen might not be enough to convince Turkey to cease its operation against the YPG.

Because of this, it is not difficult to see why both sides are speaking as if the other side is a brick wall. Turkey and the US will likely soothe very short term tensions due to the high level nature of the forthcoming meetings, but after a week or even in a matter of days, things will likely return to business as usual. For Turkey this means a further pivot away from the US and towards both Russia and Iran whose Astana format has withstood a propaganda onslaught from the powerful “alt-media” communities in all three states. Meanwhile, Turkey and the United States who once had an almost air-tight alliance (certainly by regional standards) are slipping further and further into rival territory”.

While there were few prospects of a successful Tillerson meeting in Ankara in the first place, a carefully timed Russian statement exposing how the US continues to arm the Kurdish PKK affiliated YPG militia, helped to seal the deal in terms of Turkey having no second thoughts about making a self-defeating “compromise” with a country that has crossed Turkey’s long standing redline regarding Kurdish terrorists/separatists.

Hours before Tillerson landed in Ankara Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stated,

“The Americans have sent to Kurds convoys with weapons through the territory of Iraq, provoking Turkey. Turkey, in turn, has continued its military actions against Kurds in the Afrin area in northwestern Syria as part of the Operation Olive Branch”.

Thus, while until the very recent past, Russia “expressed concern” over Turkey’s anti-PKK/YPG Operation Olive Branch in-line with the official position of Damascus, Russia is now openly backing up the Turkish position that the US is arming radical Kurds in Syria and that this is “provoking” Turkey. This demonstrates that for Moscow, maintaining good relations with nearby Turkey has become a far higher priority than any hopes of a de-fato dead in the water detente with the US. Russia has now joined Turkey in openly accusing the US or provoking Operation Olive Branch by arming groups that are known to threaten the territorial integrity and security of the Republic of Turkey. Russia is clearly hoping that the Tillerson meeting will be as useless as many in Turkey are already saying it will be.

On Turkish social media, the hashtag , meaning “Get out of here, Tillerson” has already been trending, while a lengthy op-ed in the Daily Sabah, a media outlet with extremely close links to the AK Party of President Erdogan, has made Turkey’s demands clear beyond a shadow of a doubt. The most relevant portions of the piece, which is phrased in the form of an open letter to Tillerson, are reproduced below,

“First and foremost, the U.S. should sever all ties with the PKK and its affiliates no matter what initials they use. Turkey will no longer put up with this nonsense. The SDF, YPG, YPJ, TAK and PJAK all are one and the same.

You should carefully weigh what you will say to Turkish officials tomorrow. If you believe telling them that the YPG will be withdrawing from Manbij will satisfy Ankara’s concerns, you are greatly mistaken.

Each and every trained and equipped PKK and YPG member is a clear and present danger to Turkey’s security. However, these terrorists also pose a serious threat to the EU. A trained terrorist can easily change alliances, as recent reports about Daesh militants joining the YPG show.

The PKK and all its branches, as well as all other terrorist groups, are Turkey’s enemies. If the central U.S. objective is to fight Daesh, what Turkey has done in this fight is second to none. The coalition and NATO are there to help. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) are perfectly capable of eliminating all such threats.

We at Daily Sabah do not know if your visit will finally lift the veil of confusion that seems to blind the current U.S. administration, but there are a few facts that all self-respecting diplomats need to know. Turks do not like the U.S. Ordinary Turks on the streets believe the U.S. is a cause of instability and a threat. They do not trust statements coming from Washington. Such anger approaching hatred is something new. Any American diplomat who thinks this is not fair should come forward and show why that is the case.

These days, as U.S. influence as a superpower in the Middle East wanes, no one takes it seriously anymore. If U.S. weakness is transforming it into a nonfactor, it would be all well and good. Unfortunately, it is becoming a cause for volatility. The Middle East may be the first region where such deterioration occurs, but it certainly will not be the last.

Countries in the region are now calling on other outside actors and openly voicing their distrust of the U.S. If you cannot manage a crisis, the least you could do is not stoke the fire. If you are incapable of formulating a strategy, you should at least abide by the role assigned by your regional allies. You should use your considerable remaining strength for peace and stability, not chaos.

Bilateral relations can still be rescued. However, as things stand, Turkey will not lift a finger to please you. It is about time you thought carefully and did something that made Ankara happy.

Mr. Tillerson, we, as Daily Sabah, hope that you are coming to make such a gesture and depart without ruining everything. Last chances should not be wasted. The next U.S. official who wants to save ties may find all doors shut”.

While the Daily Sabah’s youthful pro-government staff are known for often employing strong language to make their points, in this case, while the public language between Tillerson and Turkish officials will be more muted, the Sabah’s op-ed is for all intents and purposes, a clear statement of what the Turkish government thinks about and wants from the United States.

Turkey has drawn a line in the sand: either the US can forego its ties with Kurdish militants in Syria and work on re-starting healthy ties with Ankara, or else, accept poor relations with a fellow NATO member for the foreseeable future. This could ultimately lead to Turkey suspending its membership in NATO, which it first joined early in the alliance’s history in 1952.

Interestingly, the editorial does not even mention Turkey’s longstanding request for the wanted terrorist Fethullah Gulen, to be sent to Turkey in order to face justice. Gulen is currently living in the United States and Washington has repeatedly refused to extradite Gulen in spite of Turkey blaming Gulen’s FETO for organising the failed coup against the Turkish government in the summer of 2016.

This means that even if the US were to offer Gulen to Ankara as a kind of geopolitical ‘reconciliation gift’, even this would not be enough to make Turkey accept the pro-Kurdish position of the US on Turkey’s borders. Barring a sincere promise for the US to give up on its only reliable proxy force in Syria, which is highly unlikely, the forthcoming meeting between Tillerson and his Turkish counterparts is not even mission impossible – it is ‘mission dead on arrival’.

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