30.04.2018 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Turkey & the US Re-discovering Their ‘Lost-love’


While Turkish officials have been recently seen justifying their quite rapprochement with the US on Syria as a result of Turkey’s ‘diverse’ foreign policy, it seems that the said diversity was not considered to be a viable option when the Turkish leadership blatantly accused the US of cooking up crisis in Turkey, leading to a failed coup attempt as well. Nor could this diversity become a preferred foreign policy option when the United States was (and still is) an official backer of Kurdish militias, Turkey’s prime target, in Syria. It is only when the US decided to succumb to Turkey’s long-standing demand of not arming the Kurds that the mantra of ‘diverse foreign relations’ became a possibility, a part of Turkey’s public discourse and the primary reference for underscoring Turkey’s geo-strategic importance in the region.

While Turkey is undoubtedly an important regional player and stability and instability in its neighbouring countries tends to directly affect its own security situation, behind Turkey’s quite rapprochement with the US are reasons that cannot simply be called a result of Turkey’s ‘diversified’ foreign policy; rather, there is a broader strategic understanding developing between Washington and Ankara as the latter prepares to reinforce its importance for the West by spearheading their interests in the absence of the US and its allies in all major Syria peace processes, including Astana and Sochi.

The element of “mutual understanding” between Washington and Ankara was recently confirmed by the US permanent representative to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, when she said on April 27 that “We are working with Turkey to try—first of all—to assure Turkey that we are doing nothing that would be with a terrorist organization and secondly to assure Turkey that they are our allies.”

Part of this “mutual understanding” also lies in the on-going talks for a weapons deal between Washington and Ankara, according to which Turkey might be going to buy the made-in-US Patriot missile system. While not a potential replacement for the Russian S-400 missile system, talks over Patriot system symbolize Turkey’s gradual shift back to the US. Let’s not forget here that among the many reasons that created a rift between the NATO allies was the US decision to remove Patriot missile system from Turkey in 2015, leaving Turkey, as its diplomats termed it then, in a lurch and open to air-space violations from Syria.

This withdrawal, as it stands today, turned out to be a symbol of the ‘bad-season’ that Turkey-US relations were to experience until now. This ‘bad-season’ is, however, now ending and the US seems willing to buy Turkey in by selling it the same Patriot system that other NATO countries, including Germany and Netherlands, already have in their national arsenal.

“We have not given up for NATO-compatible systems,” Turkish PM recently said while confirming that they were in talks with US over buying the Patriot system, adding that the US is “still an ally of Turkey despite its mistakes in the region of Syria.”

Now, this possible purchase of a NATO-compatible system has certain geo-political dimensions, particularly with regard to the Syrian end-game. Contrary to the official narrative that the purchase of Patriot system is a technical deal, the fact is that the US is using this deal to lure Turkey in on its side of conflict in Syria. Otherwise, had this been just a technical one, Turkish government should have initiated a tender and Turkish Air Forces should have been a prominent actor in the purchase process.

But none of this has happened, pointing explicitly to the quite deals between the US and Turkey regarding Turkish operations against Kurds in Afrin and the one planned for Manbij. As it stands, talk of the town is that the deal has already been reached, and Turkish officials are expecting the US to ‘honour’ it.

It was in the month of March that reports of an “understanding”, not a deal, between the US and Turkey had started to make headlines. Now, merely two months after the “understanding”, Turkey’s Erdogan has confirmed that Ankara will not hit Kurds or make a military move to clear northeastern and eastern Syria of Kurdish militias, signaling Ankara’s willingness to pursue policies in Syria that are more in line with the US and NATO than any other country.

And while Turkey is progressively changing its stance vis-à-vis Syrian Kurds, the US is still accommodating its interests elsewhere i.e., Iraq, where PKK, a Kurdish militia that both the US and Turkey consider a terrorist outfit, is mainly based and has its main headquarters as well.

According to the reports of even pro-government Turkish media, Turkey has been conducting clandestine operations in Iraqi region called Sidekan, which is adjacent to the Qandil Mountains and where the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has its main headquarters, for at least past two months already, and plans to develop temporary, but long term, military bases to both encircle and cut-off the Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey, as such, is re-positioning itself in Syria after its quite rapprochement with the US. And, while it is facing Russian and Iranian opposition regarding expanding its military operation from Afrin, it is still working on its objectives in Iraq, where Russia and Iran have no serious concerns but where Ankara’s interests are well served.

Will Ankara pay the US in the same coin? This is the question that has become very crucial, given that the US, by accommodating Ankara’s interests in Iraq, is not simply aiming to prevent it from attacking Kurds in Syria, it is fundamentally seeking to re-define the Syrian end-game by making Turkey spearhead their i.e., NATO’s interests.

The recently held (April 28) meeting of NATO allies, where Turley was present, confirmed that tensions between NATO and Russia are running deep and that NATO is in a full confrontation mode, leading Mike Pompeo, the new US Secretary of State, to press Turley on the purchase of S-400 missile system from Russia.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.