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Turkey-US negotiations are key ahead of Raqqa offensive

This week’s visit by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to the Turkish capital emphasized once again the intensive dialogue between the two key NATO allies in terms of the fight against Daesh and the planned Raqqa offensive.

The visit followed Turkey’s announcement that Operation Euphrates Shield, conducted in northern Syria since August 2016, had been successfully concluded with the removal of Daesh from the towns of Jarablus and Al-Bab. More than 70 Turkish soldiers lost their lives during the operation.

Tillerson met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu.

He held a joint press meeting with Cavusoglu, in which he underlined that Turkey is a key partner for the stabilization efforts in the fight against Daesh.

He said the meetings focused on establishing “stabilization zones” in Syria for letting refugees return home.

“We can create stability inside Syria. We can help people get back to their home. We discussed this and it was a fruitful exchange of views,” Tillerson said. 

“The long-term status of President Assad will be decided by Syrian people,” he added during Thursday’s joint news conference with Cavusoglu.

The US-led international coalition against Daesh includes airstrikes mainly conducted from Turkey’s Incirlik airbase in the southern part of the country. 

Turkey has been using the base as a trump card to emphasize its priorities and “red lines” — particularly regarding the cooperation between the US and the Syrian Kurdish militia fighters, or YPG — ahead of the Raqqa campaign. Ankara considers YPG as an offshoot of the PKK insurgents in Turkey.

When asked whether the US would continue to support the YPG, Tillerson preferred ambiguity. 

“We had a good discussion on Syria, and our consultations will continue,” he said.

Rex Tillerson did not give a firm answer on whether the US would continue to support Syrian Kurdish militia fighters that Ankara views as part of a terror organization

Menekse Tokyay 

However, from the Turkish perspective, it is not a principled approach to fight against one terrorist organization by cooperating with another. Cavusoglu said that there are 68 countries in the anti-Daesh coalition. “If we cannot defeat ten or twenty thousand people, if we need another terror organization to do this, there is a problem over there,” he noted.

Following his meeting with Tillerson, Erdogan underlined the importance of working with “legitimate” actors in the counter-terrorism efforts, the Anadolu Agency said.

Haldun Yalcinkaya, a former lieutenant colonel at the Turkish Military Academy and who currently heads the international relations department of Ankara’s TOBB University of Economics and Technology, said that the current US administration is just coordinating the last details with its partners for the coming Raqqa operation.

He cited a Turkish plan to move toward the Syrian city of Manbij, something that is now apparently on hold.

“Regarding the statement for ending of Euphrates Shield Operation yesterday, I would claim Turkey gives up plans for the operation against (Manbij) as of now. So, I wonder if the US, as well as Russia, pledges anything to Turkey on (Manbij) and for the role of PYD in there,” Yalcinkaya told Arab News.

“To my understanding there must be some convincing words to Turkey on the issue… words definitely would not be sufficient,” he added.

Megan Gisclon, managing editor of Istanbul Policy Center, said that Tillerson operated within his diplomatic limits during Thursday’s press conference.

Gisclon cited the upcoming constitutional referendum in Turkey, in which citizens will vote on a set of 18 proposed constitutional amendments.

“As the US is waiting on the April 16 referendum in Turkey, it is inclined not to make any direct statements on the issues at hand in Syria,” Gisclon told Arab News.

“I think today what we saw from Secretary Tillerson and FM Cavusoglu is that they have agreed to disagree on the PYD/YPG; however, they are still not going to give up the possibility of working together in the fight against Daesh,” she added. 

According to Gisclon, Daesh poses too clear a threat to both countries, while Turkey is the second-largest army in NATO and also well known for its effectiveness in combat — no doubt attributes that contribute to the US seeing Turkey as a long-time strategic partner.

“Although if Turkey does not get on board with US or Russian plans, especially after recent troubles with the EU, it risks being isolated. Certainly, as a friend of Russia from his days at Exxon Mobil, Secretary Tillerson is inclined to work with the Russians,” she said.

Gisclon also noted that Turkey has few opportunities to convince the US to drop the YPG and present its plans for Raqqa — but one such opportunity came on Thursday.

“Now, the referendum is the only factor left to determine the US strategy in northern Syria and how that will include Turkey. It seems nothing was set in stone (on Thursday), but the door between the US and Turkey has been left open,” she said.