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Turkey’s dilemma on US, Russian ties

The political rapprochement between the US and Turkey under two ambitious leaders — US President Donald Trump and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — has the potential to give rise to a new landscape in Syria through joint moves against Daesh. 

Erdogan and Trump on Feb. 7 agreed in a late-night phone call to act together against Daesh and discussed key issues such as establishing a safe zone in Syria and dealing with the refugee crisis.

According to media reports based on Turkish presidential sources, Erdogan also called on Trump to cease US support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance.

Ankara considers the YPG an extension of the PKK and hence a terrorist group. The PKK is recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU and US State Department.

The White House said that during the phone call, Trump emphasized the two countries’ “shared commitment to combating terrorism in all its forms,” and welcomed Turkey’s assistance in the fight against Daesh. 

Ankara may be pushed to make a choice in favor of one of the two great powers — and face the rivalry of the other.

Menekse Tokyay 

Just one day after the phone call, CIA Director Mike Pompeo paid his first foreign visit to Ankara, followed by another phone call between US Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. According to media reports, Pence and Yildirim agreed to increase their cooperation, while Pence emphasized that Ankara and Washington are entering a “new day” in their relations.

Closer coordination

After the key differences during the second term of former US President Barack Obama, Turkey is likely to seek closer coordination and cooperation with the Trump administration. Meanwhile, with a key geopolitical position and as the second largest military force within NATO, Turkey can play a key role in eradicating Daesh, Trump’s only priority in Syria.

Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, during an interview with Turkish broadcaster NTV, said that in the upcoming days Turkey and the US would continue to discuss operational details of issues such as the creation of a safe zone between the Syrian towns of Jarablus and Azaz for displaced civilians. A safe zone is seen as a national security priority by Ankara.

While Turkey is seeking to work closer with the US in Syria, how Russia will react to this effort remains to be seen. Russian and Turkish air forces in January conducted a joint air operation against Daesh in Syria by hitting terrorist targets in the Al-Bab region.

Caught between the US and Russia

Behlul Ozkan, assistant professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Marmara University, said that Syria has become an arena for both Russia and the US to exert their power projections.

“At first stage, this can be considered as advantageous for Turkey... being a neighbor of Syria. But in terms of foreign policy, it can result in serious problems that can unfold beyond Ankara’s control,” Ozkan told Arab News.

According to Ozkan, these new dynamics may push Turkey to make a choice in favor of one of the two great powers, and face the rivalry of the other.

“The policies adopted by neither the US nor Russia conform with Ankara’s priorities,” Ozkan said.

This is primarily due to Washington’s military support and the Kremlin’s diplomatic recognition of the PYD, the political wing of the YPG militia.

“It would be a foreign policy challenge for Turkey when both superpowers reach a consensus on their relationship with PYD/YPG,” Ozkan said.

US ‘honeymoon phase’

There is a growing debate over whether the US will change its policy on the PYD and YPG and whether it will calm Turkey’s concerns.

Selim Sazak, a researcher at the Century Foundation, a New York-based think tank, said it is difficult to predict how US-Turkey relations will evolve on Syria-related issues.

He referenced the recent high-level visits between Turkish and US officials, as well as the phone call between Trump and Erdogan.

“These encounters may mean something, but they might also mean nothing. This is the honeymoon phase of every US administration,” Sazak said.

“Turkey is expecting a lot from the Trump administration. Some of these expectations, like (the US) cutting support to the Kurds and throwing (their) lot behind Turkish-backed FSA, is obviously not aligned with US national interests,” Sazak told Arab News.

The question is, according to Sazak, how soon the honeymoon phase ends, what happens when it becomes apparent that not all of Turkey’s wishes will be granted, and how factors like the situation in Syria or Turkey’s domestic affairs will unfold in the meantime.

Turkey’s relations with Russia

Sazak noted that the “new page” opened between the Trump and Erdogan administrations might backfire on Turkey’s relations with Russia.

“If (the due of) Defense Secretary Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson (gains) weight in the US administration against National Security Adviser Flynn and (the) White House’s Chief Strategist Bannon, who intend to mend ties with Russia, the relations between Washington and Moscow will remain adversarial and Turkey will have to face a blowback from the other side in its regional preferences,” he said.

On Feb. 9, a Russian jet struck a building near the town of Al-Bab, killing three Turkish soldiers and injuring 11. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said that the Russia airstrike was “totally accidental” although a Kremlin spokesperson noted afterwards that the airstrikes were launched on the basis of intelligence given by the Turkish military to its Russian counterparts. The Turkish Armed Forces released a press statement on Feb. 10, saying that Turkish soldiers were at that location for about 10 days, and their location was shared with Russia twice. Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately expressed his condolences to Erdogan.

Since the launch of Turkey’s Euphrates Shield Operation in August, aimed at clearing Turkey’s borders of Daesh, a total of 67 Turkish soldiers have been killed.

For the moment, Ankara and the Kremlin are trying to avoid another crisis in their relations after the downing by Turkey of a Russian jet in 2015, and focus on their cooperation against Daesh.