Turkish and U.S. officials are scheduled to meet Thursday to resolve unprecedented bilateral tensions between the NATO allies.
The talks are part of a series of meetings to address differences between the countries. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned the outcome of the talks would determine the future of bilateral relations.
The talks are part of a process formed after last month’s U.S. diplomatic efforts, as bilateral relations hit a crisis point.
“The establishment of the mechanism to at least speak about the disputes, if not to solve them immediately, is a step in the right direction,” said international relations lecturer Soli Ozel of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “Hopefully, the two sides will manage to speak the same language.”
Thursday’s meeting is expected to focus on one main point of contention — U.S. support of the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, in its fight against Islamic State. Ankara accused the militia of being terrorists linked to a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey.
‘Amicable settlement’ sought
Experts warned that Thursday’s talks were complicated by Washington’s various stances toward the YPG.
“Whereas the State Department is more cognizant of the damage that this relationship does to the overall Turkey-U.S. relationship, this is going to be as much a negotiation between Turkey and the U.S. as really an interagency negotiation within the U.S. administration,” said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar with Carnegie Europe.
Ulgen said Ankara is looking to U.S. President Donald Trump to find a resolution to the conflict.
“There is an expectation that the U.S. president, through the National Security Council, will impress upon the need to find an amicable settlement that would satisfy Turkey,” Ulgen said.
Turkish diplomatic and presidential sources blame the Pentagon for bilateral tensions and believe Trump offers the best chance of resolving ongoing differences.
Turkey’s ongoing military operation in Syria’s Afrin enclave against the YPG Kurdish militia is further aggravating bilateral tensions. Washington opposes the offensive, called “Operation Olive Branch,” warning it would undermine the war against IS.
Those fears appeared well-founded this week, with the U.S. confirming ground operations against the jihadists had been temporarily suspended. On Tuesday, the Syrian Defense Forces, the umbrella organization under which the YPG fights, announced it was sending 1,700 of its fighters to Afrin. Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged some SDF fighters abandoning operations against IS.
Ankara turned up the pressure on the U.S. Department of Defense Wednesday, stating, “It is particularly expected [by Turkey] that the U.S. must certainly step in and halt the shifting of YPG/PYD forces, which moves under its control in [the city of] Manbij to Afrin,” said Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.
Thursday’s talks in Washington are expected to focus on Turkey’s ongoing offensive. Ankara has warned that the next target of Operation Olive Branch is the Syrian City of Manbij, where U.S. forces are deployed with the YPG militia. Turkish ministers have warned that U.S. forces could be targeted if they remained deployed with the YPG.
“I believe there can be a deal to position some sort of liaison office of the Turkish armed forces in Manbij and further de-conflict the situation by extracting YPG elements out of Manbij,” said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served in Iraq and Washington.
For now, the YPG has ruled out any withdrawal from Manbij, while Ankara is demanding Washington cut all ties with the Kurdish militia.
“The U.S. will never abandon the Kurds,” said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. “They are simply too important for their interests in the region. That is something Ankara has to understand.”
Thursday’s talks are just the start of the process, with further meetings scheduled for later in March and April aimed at addressing the myriad of differences between the countries.
“These meetings may be rolling the can down the road, but there are some very serious issues needing to be resolved. You cannot forever deflect those or delay them forever,” Ozel said. “My sense [is] the most fundamental problem is that Turkish interests in the Middle East and American interests in the Middle East are not the same. Are they totally incompatible? I am not sure.”