Mattis in Turkey with critical regional agenda

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, greets U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis, prior to their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, on Wednesday. (AP)
Updated 24 August 2017
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Mattis in Turkey with critical regional agenda

ANKARA: US Defense Secretary James Mattis arrived in Ankara Wednesday for talks with Turkish leaders, including his counterpart Nurettin Canikli and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 
Before Turkey, Mattis visited Jordan, Iraq’s capital Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital Irbil to discuss opportunities for joint military cooperation. 
The latest developments in Syria, ongoing efforts against Daesh, Turkey’s concerns about Kurdish militias in the region and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) independence referendum scheduled for Sept. 25 were discussed. 
Mattis’ visit comes just after Iranian Chief of Staff Gen. Mohammed Hossein Ragheri’s visit to Ankara last week to discuss joint operations against the offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iran, PJAK, and developments in Syria. 
One of the main fault lines between the US and Turkey is their stance on the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers a national threat but Washington sees as a partner on the ground against Daesh in Syria. 
Ankara has repeatedly expressed concern about US military support for the YPG since May, emphasizing the group’s links to PKK Kurdish separatists in Turkey. “It’s well known that the US is sending weapons to northern Syria through the border from Iraq,” Erdogan said Tuesday. “The number of trucks sent with military equipment now surpassed 1,000.” 
During his meeting with Mattis, Erdogan expressed Turkey’s unease about US support for the YPG, while they both emphasized the importance of the territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria.
Before heading to Baghdad on Aug. 23, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara opposes the KRG’s upcoming referendum and expects its cancelation.
In the same vein, Mattis told Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi on Tuesday that the US backs Iraq’s territorial integrity. 
Megan Gisclon, managing editor of the Istanbul Policy Center, said the main purpose of Mattis’ visit is to preserve security ties between the US and Turkey. 
“While US support of the YPG remains the major sticking point between the two NATO allies, the Department of Defense has announced that Mattis will discuss ways in which the US can assist Turkey’s security concerns in its fight against the PKK, which Ankara views as the same as the YPG,” Gisclon told Arab News, adding that the US partnership with the YPG is unlikely to change.
“Focusing on the US-Turkey consensus on the PKK will at least help relieve some tension,” she said. 
As Mattis’ visit to Ankara comes after his trip to Iraq, he seemingly views Turkey as an important actor in the security of the Middle East. We may think of these two trips as a joint venture by Mattis in gaining a perspective on the regional situation as Daesh is being defeated on the ground.” 
Selin Nasi, a foreign policy analyst and a doctoral candidate in the political science department at Bogazici University in Istanbul, said the final game is about which actor will fill the vacuum left by Daesh’s retreat in Syria and Iraq.
“Turkey and the US have been at odds for quite a long time over the latter’s cooperation with the YPG in Syria, and Turkey as a NATO member has been complaining that its concerns weren’t taken seriously,” Nasi told Arab News. 
Cavusoglu’s recent remarks that “Russia understands Turkey better than the US” reflects this deep disappointment, Nasi added.
“Turkey has thus moved closer to Russia and Iran to compensate for what the US failed to deliver. Yet it’s hard to say that Turkey, Iran and Russia have overlapping interests and priorities in either Syria or in Iraq.” 
Nasi said Turkey has been trying to show the West that it has alternatives, whereas the US wants to reassure Ankara regarding the future of Syria and the KRG referendum.
“Mattis’ visit by and large aims to keep Turkey within the Western axis right before the launch of the Idlib operation (in Syria against) Al-Qaeda-related radical opposition.”


Refugee returns to Syria must be coordinated with UN: Merkel

Updated 3 min 45 sec ago
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Refugee returns to Syria must be coordinated with UN: Merkel

  • Germany's Merkel says Syria must be more secure before refugees return

BEIRUT: The return of Syrian refugees to their homeland can only happen in coordination with the United Nations, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday during her two-day visit to Lebanon.
Refugee returns have been a hot-button issue in Lebanon, a small country that has the world’s highest number of refugees per capita.
“We want to contribute to reaching a political solution in Syria, that will allow refugees to return to Syria,” Merkel told reporters on Friday, after meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
“I confirmed with officials that returns can only happen in agreement and talks with UN organizations,” she added.
Around 500 refugees left southern Lebanon earlier this year for Syria in a return organized between Lebanese and Syrian authorities, and several thousand have gone back to their homeland from towns around the border in recent years.
The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) says it is not involved in the return process and does not yet consider Syria safe enough for refugees to return.
Lebanese officials have been increasingly calling for refugee returns with or without a political solution to Syria’s seven-year-old crisis.
Merkel said it was “understandable” that the large refugee influx had caused tensions in Lebanon but expressed hope they could be resolved.
Her comments come at a rocky time for ties between Lebanon’s government and the UNHCR.
This month, Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil ordered a halt to new residency permits for UNHCR’s foreign staff, accusing them of “intimidating the displaced who wish to return voluntarily.”
The UN has said it hopes Bassil will rescind his decision. The rest of Lebanon’s government has not officially commented.

Hariri, who has been appointed for a third term as Lebanon’s premier, said his country was still seeking refugee returns “as quickly as possible.”
“The only permanent solution for Syrian refugees is their return to Syria in a safe and dignified manner,” he told reporters.
Merkel is also due to meet Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Friday, before flying back to Germany where she faces intense pressure to curb migrant arrivals.

According to the UNHCR, more than 5.6 million people have fled Syria since 2011 and another 6.6 million are currently internally displaced.
The UN last week said it noted at least 920,000 displacements since the beginning of the year, the highest in that time frame in Syria’s war.
Aid groups have warned that heightened anti-refugee rhetoric and quieting battlefronts in Syria could lead government to force refugees out.