US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will arrive for talks in Ankara later this week amid fears that troops from the two NATO allies could clash if Washington continues to back Kurdish rebels in the long-running conflict.
His visit is scheduled to take place just days after US National Security Adviser Herbert McMaster met an adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss the growing tensions. US Defense Secretary James Mattis is also set to meet his Turkish counterpart Nurettin Canikli in Brussels this week.
The talks will take place as Turkish soldiers push deeper into northern Syria as part of a major offensive aimed at dislodging Kurdish guerrillas armed and supported by American forces in the fight against Daesh.
With the two sides refusing to back down, analysts told Arab News that US and Turkish officials are acutely aware of the need to find a diplomatic solution to the dispute before it is damaged beyond repair.
Mehmet Ali Tugtan, an expert on transatlantic relations at Istanbul Bilgi University, said, “For both parties, the least desirable outcome is a military confrontation. No matter who comes out on top, the result would be devastating, not just for Turkey and the US, but also for the NATO alliance.”
On Jan. 20, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch, a ground and air offensive targeting Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the Afrin region of northwestern Syria. It claims to have killed, injured or captured hundreds of militants in the campaign, while 31 Turkish soldiers have so far died.
However, the UN reported that an estimated 5,000 people were displaced in the first three days of fighting alone. The operation is now due to be extended east, to the area around the town of Manbij, bringing a sharp rebuke from US forces stationed there.
Turkey considers the YPG a threat to its sovereignty due to the group’s links with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which it regards as a terrorist organization.
The US and EU also formally list the PKK as a terrorist organization, but Washington has relied heavily on the YPG in its military campaign against Daesh. This has led to increasingly heated exchanges between the two NATO members.
Yesterday Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, claimed US troops were deliberately letting Daesh fighters hold pockets of territory to justify their continued partnership with the YPG. Speaking in Istanbul, he said ties between the two countries “are at a very critical point” and will “break completely” if they are not fixed soon.
The US acknowledges that Turkey has legitimate security concerns regarding its southern border, but has urged Ankara to show restraint in its operations against the Kurdish guerrillas. About 2,000 American troops are stationed in northern Syria, and Washington so far has refused to end its military and logistical support for the YPG.
Megan Gisclon, a researcher on US-Turkey relations at the Istanbul Policy Center, said that tensions were particularly high over the future of Manbij.
American commanders had been seen flying the US flag in the area, she said, and Turkish officials are worried that Washington is trying to establish a long-term military presence there.
“For Turkey, the only way to rebuild trust would be for the US to uphold its original promise to exit Manbij, taking the YPG with it. For the US, the best option would be to convince Turkey to ext directly from Afrin after its operation has ended,” she said.
“Whether or not both sides are either capable or willing to compromise is the central question.”
Tillerson’s latest stopover comes as part of a wider diplomatic tour that will take in Kuwait, Lebanon and Jordan. He was in Egypt on Monday.
On Sunday, McMaster and Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, met in Istanbul to discuss the growing acrimony between the two countries.
The war in Syria is not the sole cause of the strained relations. In July 2016, Erdogan accused a US-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen, of orchestrating a failed coup against him. His subsequent demand that Gulen be extradited to Turkey was rejected by Washington.