Turkey and the US decided to set up commissions to work on the disputes they have, and the first meeting is on Thursday. Both US and Turkish officials told us what will be on the agenda, what they expect from the talks and the challenges they have.
After months of tension between the US and Turkey over Washington’s support for the YPG in Syria, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson paid a visit to Turkey on February 15 in a bid to solve the problems between the two countries.
The visit, which Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared as “a point where the ties will either improve or break completely,” helped both countries to come to a common understanding on normalising relations.
It was decided that commissions would be appointed to deal with three areas of concern: FETO and visa issues, Syria and Iraq.
The first meeting between US and Turkish officials will be held on March 8 in Washington in a bid to improve the damaged relationship. It will include only the second and the third commissions, as the US requested a later meeting for FETO and visa issues.
The meetings on Syria and Iraq will be led by Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs David Satterfield and Assistant Secretary Wess Mitchell from the US side; Deputy Under Secretary Sedat Onal and Director General of South Asia Department Fazli Corman from the Turkish side.
Turkey’s commission will include officials from Turkish intelligence service, MIT, foreign ministry, defence ministry and the army. The US officials from the CIA, Pentagon, State Department and the Department of Defense will take part in the meetings.
After the first meeting of these two working groups, Cavusoglu and Tillerson will meet in Washington on March 19.
What’s on the table regarding Syria?
According to a high-level Turkish diplomatic source, the talks on Syria will be held under two main points: the political process and the fight against terrorism.
There are disputes over how to proceed with the fight against terrorism. Daesh is recognised as a terror group for both countries and there has been cooperation since 2014. But as Daesh has been practically defeated from Syria, Turkey’s priority is now the YPG.
YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, a designated terror group by Turkey, the US and the EU and has been fighting the Turkish state for more than 30 years. Nevertheless, that fact hasn’t stopped the US from cooperating with the YPG in Syria. Hence, the YPG holds control of the territories where Daesh has been defeated, making up about a quarter of the country.
Turkey will ask the US to cut its support for the YPG and all retrieve the weapons and ammunition they provided to the group.
First step: Manbij
Since the US started supporting the YPG, Ankara asked Washington to keep the group on the east of the Euphrates River. But they crossed the river and took control of Manbij, later around 200 US troops were deployed there. The US has not kept its promise to Turkey for the YPG’s withdrawal from the city since August 2016.
Now, according to the Turkish diplomatic source, Manbij will top the agenda and it will be the first test for the US to gain Turkish trust again, so the two countries can start working together in Syria again.
Turkey wants the city to be governed by a local council, which will have representatives from all the ethnic groups of Manbij, according to the population it had before the war. After the new governance is set up, the idea is Turkish and American troops would be patrolling to enhance security.
Tillerson said in the joint press conference in Ankara that they “wanted to ensure that that city remained under control of the US’ allied forces and did not fall into the hands of others.” He didn’t give any details on who these allied forces are.
A senior US official said Turkey and the US would jointly decide on the future security arrangement for Manbij.
“There needs to be some security arrangement in Manbij. Somebody has to provide security in the city, and our intention is that it won’t be the YPG. We remain committed to fulfilling our promises regarding the YPG presence in Manbij,” the official added.
Second step: YPG presence in southeast of Syria
Another Turkish official said after Manbij their attention will turn to Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.
He said the YPG presence on all the borders is a national security concern for Turkey but that the priority now is to protect Syria’s demographic structure; so they will ask the US for YPG withdrawal from all the Arab majority regions of Syria. Ankara will reiterate to US officials that the US will keep losing any possible support from the Syrian people as long as they support the YPG.
Last step: Turkish border
Turkish officials stressed that Ankara won’t stop until the YPG is cleared of its borders with Syria.
The senior US official said their military cooperation with the YPG was temporary and tactical for purposes of combatting Daesh.
“After the defeat of Daesh we don’t have any plans for enduring military cooperation with the YPG and certainly no plans for an enduring political relationship with the PYD (political arm of the YPG),” the US official added, but avoided giving any time for that and said “The conditions don’t exist for us to declare the fighting is over.”
The official also said they would take “some categories of the equipment” back.
Avoiding mention of a specific date for when they will cut all the support for the YPG, the US official said they would like to assure Turkey on the territorial integrity of Syria:
“We have no ambitions to create any sort of autonomous zones within Syria. From time to time, people suggest that we have some interest in creating a Syrian equivalent to the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq; that’s not our policy. We have no such interest.”
Regardless of US plans for Syria, the ongoing support for the YPG will be the first issue to be solved. The US official also admits the fact that the YPG is an affiliate of a US-designated terror group:
“It’s true that the US over the years has encouraged the YPG to break with the PKK, to cease its connection with the PKK. People are very sceptical on if that’s possible. But it would be useful if it were.”
That was also discussed by the foreign ministers of both countries in February. After the talks, Turkish Foreign Minister Nurettin Canikli told the reporters that US Secretary of Defense James Mattis suggested to get the YPG to fight the PKK, but Ankara had not found the idea realistic.
The US senior official said that was a misunderstanding, “a comment probably lost in translation.”
olitical transition in Syria
The senior Turkish diplomatic source says US priority for a political solution in Syria is to make progress within the UN-led Geneva talks, and it needs Turkey’s cooperation for that. He said the US is concerned Geneva talks will be ignored by Russia and Iran, who are leading the Astana talks with Turkey.
Turkish officials say they don’t expect major progress any time soon. The US official also couldn’t give any expected dates saying, “There is not a deadline, we’re going to keep working until we solve our problems.”
Both sides also confirmed that a buffer zone is on the table, but “it would be immature to talk about it before they discuss the details.”
What is on the agenda of talks on Iraq?
The other meeting on Iraq will concentrate on the fight against the PKK, where the US is more open to cooperate. The PKK is still based in the Qandil mountains in northeast Iraq, in Sinjar in the west, which neighbours Syria’s YPG-held areas, and also partly in the Sulaymaniyah region and Makhmur.
Turkey requests more intelligence sharing on PKK movement in Iraq, “so that their fight against the terror group would be more effective.”
According to the Turkish officials, Americans see the problems in Iraq as easier to solve and suggest starting on them. But Ankara insists on solving the problems in Syria first, which caused one of the biggest diplomatic crises between two countries. Without achieving a common understanding and taking concrete steps in Syria, it’s difficult to cooperate on other areas, according to Turkish politicians.
How did the relations come to this critical point?
The diplomatic crisis between the two countries has its roots back in 2014 when the US first started supporting the YPG in Syria. FETO, designated terror group by Turkey, attempted a coup in the country in 2016. Ankara has called for the extradition of its leader, Fetullah Gulen, who lives in a self-exile in the US. Washington never responded.
In the meantime, some US consulate employees were detained in Turkey, accused of having links with FETO. This led to a visa crisis between the two countries, in which the US consulates in Turkey rejected visa applications. Turkey retaliated in kind. The problem was partially resolved within a month.
The tension came to a breaking point in the beginning of 2018 when the US declared they are establishing a new YPG-led army in Syria. Turkey then launched its military operation in Afrin against the YPG.