Turkey-US relations are salvageable but require great effort

Turkey-US relations are salvageable but require great effort

Bilateral relations between NATO allies Turkey and the US began to sour  in May 2003, when a motion was submitted to the Turkish Parliament about allowing US troops to cross Turkey into Iraq to open up a second front in the north. The Parliament voted down the motion and the US reacted angrily.
In Syria, Turkey and the US cooperated in the early years of the crisis by supporting the moderate opposition, but their priorities evolved in different directions as the crisis unfolded. Now their policies have become not only different, but also contradictory. The US supported Kurdish political party the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military branch the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is an extension on Syrian soil of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a listed terrorist organization in all EU and NATO countries, including the US. Several high-ranking US officials have admitted the strong link between the PKK and the YPG, but the US still regards the YPG as its most reliable and capable ally in Syria, while Ankara considers it a threat to Turkey’s security and territorial integrity.
Turkey has carried out two major military operations in Syria: The first was Euphrates Shield, which was aimed at interrupting the Kurdish belt that was emerging along the Turkish-Syrian border. The second was operation Olive Branch in Afrin, aimed at ousting the YPG from the district and setting up a more representative administrative structure. Both of these operations were carried out despite US reluctance.
Turkey has other problems with the US. One is Washington’s refusal to extradite cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Turkey regards as the mastermind of the military coup attempt of July 15, 2016. Insistent extradition demands by Turkey have remained without a clear-cut answer so far.
 

Every single conflict between Turkey and the US has its own dynamics and a blanket solution that will eliminate all controversies between them is not easy to find.

Yasar Yakis

A similar case is that of an American pastor who was arrested in Turkey on charges of conspiring against the state. The US authorities claim he is being kept as a hostage for reciprocal extradition with Gulen.
Another court case — filed in the US involving a Turkish gold trader of Iranian origin and the deputy director of a Turkish bank that was used as an intermediary in the gold trade — has disturbed the Turkish political masters because their names were mentioned in court proceedings. Turkey is uneasy with the way this case is being handled by the US. Meanwhile, Turkey’s decision to buy Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems angered the US and pushed it to move NATO to declare that these missiles are not interoperable with the NATO air defense infrastructure. American officials also threatened to impose an economic embargo on Turkey.
As a result of all these and other small incidents, support for the US in Turkish public opinion has dwindled to a record low level.
One of the reasons for Turkey not being able to establish a meaningful dialogue with the US is that various departments in the US administration, the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department speak with different shades of meaning on major controversies with Turkey. Frequent top-level reshuffles at the State Department and in the national security apparatus is also a factor.
Turkey and the US have never been on the same page regarding their Kurdish policy. The US considers the PKK a terrorist organization but has reservations on the way the Kurdish file is handled in Turkey. 
The US has so far ignored the coercion the Kurds practiced in Kobane and Raqqa. In Kobane, the PYD did not allow Arabs and Turkmens, or Kurds who do not support the PYD, to return to their homes and properties. In Raqqa, the Kurds are trying to govern a city inhabited predominantly by Arabs.
The outcome of Turkey’s operation Olive Branch in Afrin may have changed certain paradigms in Turkish-American relations. It proved that Turkey can deliver what it promises, though it is difficult to tell whether this operation will change the American reliance on the Kurds. The US may be planning to use the Kurds later for putting pressure on the Syrian regime, for controlling territories rich in oil, gas and water resources, and for countering the Iranian presence in Syria.
Every single conflict between Turkey and the US has its own dynamics and a blanket solution that will eliminate all controversies between them is not easy to find.
The golden rule of diplomacy of identifying overlapping areas of interests and trying to widen them as much as possible may be one tool to reverse the regrettable situation where the relations between these two allies stand, but it will require a lot of effort, determination and talent.

• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.
Twitter: @yakis_yasar
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