Managing the contradictions in Turkish-US relations

Managing the contradictions in Turkish-US relations

Turkish-American ties are approaching another delicate juncture. While an agreement seems to have been reached between Turkey and the US for the expulsion of members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the northern Syrian district of Manbij, the US Senate is trying to block the delivery to Ankara of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters because of Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system. 

The move in the US Senate was initiated by Democrat Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Senator Thom Tillis when the National Defense Authorization Act was being debated by the Armed Services Committee. It aims to prevent the delivery of the jet fighters if Turkey carries on with its purchase of the Russian air defense system and if it does not release the American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who the US believes is being detained unlawfully.

There was a parallel amendment passed last month in the House of Representatives, which is aimed at stopping all US weapons sales to Turkey until the Pentagon analyzes the implications of the worsening tensions between Ankara and Washington. 

Congressmen are worried that, if Turkey buys the S-400 system, Russian experts involved in its operation may discover the vulnerabilities of the F-35. However, Secretary of Defense James Mattis seems to disagree with them since he is trying to persuade them to soften the amendment when a joint congressional committee tries to combine the texts of the two chambers. 

A lot of goodwill will be needed to distinguish YPG members from the ordinary Kurds of Manbij and not to expel citizens from their hometown or evict them from their houses

Yasar Yakis

However, there is another opponent to Turkey’s acquisition of the F-35s. According to Haaretz, Israel is concerned about the deal and has been discussing with the US the question of delivering the aircraft without performance-enhancing software. Tel Aviv is opposing the delivery on the grounds that it should remain the only country in the region possessing the advanced F-35 capabilities. 

There is a long and complicated procedure to go through before any amendment is implemented. First, the two amendments of the Senate and the House have to be combined in a single text. Improvement may be expected in favor of Turkey at that stage with the support of the Pentagon. Second, it will be submitted for presidential approval. Donald Trump’s attitude on such a controversial subject cannot be predicted until the last moment, and he may approve or veto the amendment. Third, the president or the secretary of state is supposed to send a report to Congress on Turkey’s performance at that time. If this report says Turkey fulfills the conditions, the ban on delivery will not be implemented. 

Despite the gloomy picture in Congress, Turkey and the US continue to expand their cooperation in Syria. Turkish troops have started to patrol on a line between Manbij and the area controlled by the Turkish army. 

While the Turkish authorities were trying, for understandable reasons, to disclose as much detail as possible regarding the agreement reached by the two parties about Manbij, the US authorities were much more circumspect. This may be due to disagreements among various departments within the US administration. 

The two allies may find, in the long run, a way to meet in the middle. The Manbij agreement may become a test case. According to the agreed calendar, the withdrawal of YPG members from the city will start on July 4. Turkish and US troops will start controlling the city after 45 days. Within six months, a local administration composed of indigenous people will be formed. Ankara says that, after expelling the YPG, Manbij will be handed over to its real owners, but the present 43-member Manbij Executive Council was already composed of delegates proportionally representing the ethnic and sectarian composition of the city.

A lot of goodwill will be needed to distinguish YPG members from the ordinary Kurds of Manbij and not to expel citizens from their hometown or evict them from their houses. Turkish troops will start patrolling together with US troops in downtown Manbij after the withdrawal of the YPG fighters, but the US side continues to remain mute on this issue. Common sense will have to prevail once again if frictions between Turkish and US patrols are to be avoided after July 4. 

The US is genuinely trying to address Turkey’s legitimate worries about the presence of YPG fighters in Manbij, but another equally important factor is Bashar Assad’s attitude toward the Kurds. He has so far avoided a direct confrontation with the Kurds and they have reciprocated by adopting a similar attitude. If the Kurds feel forsaken because of the Turkish-American agreement on Manbij, the US will face the difficult task of dispelling their disillusionment while not antagonizing its NATO ally Turkey at the same time. 

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