Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has given a press conference with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after last night’s three hour meeting between Tillerson and President Erdogan, which lasted for over three hours.
The US has clearly worked hard to prevent Turkey from formally downgrading relations and in this sense, the polite diplomatic efforts of Tillerson have avoided the fomentation of an immediate point of no return. At the same time, Tillerson appears to have done little to avert the general downturn in relations between two formerly close allies.
Much of the press conference was a series of statements amounting to little more than ‘agreeing to disagree’ on both the Turkish and American sides. Crucially, the US did not agree to cease arms deliveries to Kurdish militants, with Tillerson merely stating that arms given to the YPG umbrella group SDF are “mission specific”.
Mevlut Cavusoglu began his statement by saying, “Our concerns should be taken seriously — there have been some promises given and some promises that could not be kept and some subjects which we could not solve”.
He further stated that while Turkey pressed the US side regarding a withdrawal from the Kurdish/US occupied city of Manbij in northeast Aleppo Governorate, no agreements were made but that mechanisms have been set up to insure better communication in preparation for a further bilateral meeting between the two countries in March.
Most crucially, Turkey has reiterated the following red line as articulated by Cavusoglu,
“The problem around YPG is one of the most important for us. More than 100 our citizens were killed in attacks by YPG. Back in 2016, the US promised us the withdrawal of YPG from Manbij to the eastern bank of the Euphrates.Obama said it, but he did not keep his promise. Now we must have guarantees … that they will relocate across the Euphrates… Let us start with Manbij. After the majority-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) leave (Manbij) we can then take steps based on trust together with the United States, but first the YPG must leave”.
Cavusoglu further stated that Turkey will utilise its communication mechanisms with the United States to discuss Turkey’s concerns about cells of the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO) operating out of US consulates in Turkey.
Cavusoglu also rejected US claims that Turkey’s agreement to purchase Russian S-400 air defence systems is in violation of Washington’s sanctions. He stated,
“We do not use and will not accept the language of threats. Yes, the US Congress adopted a law [on anti-Russia sanctions]. But we need to ensure our national security. We would like to purchase the means to ensure it from our allies … We spoke to not only Russia but with other countries too. We finished talks with Russia long before the Congress, only little details were left”.
Rex Tillerson began his remarks by praising Turkey’s historic alliance with the US. The clear implication here is that contemporary events are threatening a once strong partnership. Tillerson therefore praised Turkey for events of past decades in an attempt to force Turkey to reconsider its clearly stated intention to reevaluate its position as a US ally. Tillerson also thanked Turkey for allowing the US and other allies to use the Incirlik airbase. Again, the clear implication here is that Turkey has considered kicking the US out, just as in 2017, Germany vacated Incirlik after serious disagreements with Turkey.
Tillerson agreed that Turkey has a legitimate right to secure its border, but nevertheless urged Turkey to show “restraint” in respect of its anti-YPG/PKK operation in Afrin. Tillerson then stated that the US has disagreements with Ankara over the detention of US citizens who are being held due to their connections with FETO.
The meetings Tillerson had with both Erdogan (where he allegedly did not use a translator) and Cavusoglu were clearly intense, with Turkey refusing to back down on its position that the US must cease arming the YPG and that before any agreement can be made over Manbij (the next stop for Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch which is set to reach the Iraqi border in the coming months), the YPG/PKK in Manbij must be disarmed and removed from the city.
From the US side, there were no concrete agreements indicating a willingness to disarm the YPG/PKK, but instead, one heard the familiar refrain that the SDF (which Turkey rightly does not distinguish from the YPG) has a specific anti-Daesh mission that will not threaten Turkish security.
While Tillerson’s respectful however strained tone may have bought Washington some time in respect of holding off an immediate deterioration of bilateral relations with Turkey, he nevertheless has left Ankara empty handed, while Turkey has made its position vis-a-vis Kurdish proxies groups armed by the US abundantly clear.
In the coming weeks and months, all eyes will be on Manbij. If the US cannot work on some deal to disarm or otherwise vacate its Kurdish militant proxies from the northern Aleppo, relations between Washington and Ankara will continue to plummet to untold depths.