Tillerson To Visit Turkey Amid Shifting Alliances

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Photo: AP)

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is scheduled to visit Turkey at the end of this month, facing a difficult challenge to deal with a NATO ally that is increasingly adversarial against the European Union while jumping on the Russian bandwagon.

Mr. Tillerson’s visit to Turkey, first reported by Al Monitor, is the latest in a series of high-level visits by U.S. officials since the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump such as CIA director Mike Pompeo. The U.S. secretary’s travel to Turkey comes after Washington has decided to ramp up the fight against the Islamic State and deploy additional troops and special forces to Syria. Navigating among Russia, Turkey, and Syrian Kurds in anticipated offensive against de facto capital of ISIS, Raqqa, will test Mr. Tillerson’s skills in diplomacy.

Mr. Tillerson’s thrust into America’s most demanding job is capped by dysfunctional transition process, the overwhelming disorder in the Trump administration and awaiting appointments for senior level positions at the State Department.

What is especially jarring for the new Trump administration is having a discord with allies over certain policy issues.

How to defeat ISIS in Syria and whether to rely on local Kurdish forces remain to be a divisive issue between Turkey and the U.S., two NATO allies.

One of the possible goals of Mr. Tillerson’s mission during March 30 visit to Turkey is to end differences to forge a strong anti-ISIS front.

But overcoming Turkey’s stiff resistance to the inclusion of the Syrian Kurdish militia in the Raqqa offensive will be no easy job. Turkey’s long-held position regarding Syrian Kurds is rooted in Ankara’s domestic political calculations. On the one hand, Ankara sees Kurdish expansion in northern Syria as an existential threat that could inflame separatist sentiment among its restive Kurdish population.

Syrian Kurdish militants, People’s Protection Units (YPG), have no need to hide its affiliation with its ideological and organizational brethren with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish state for four decades for regional autonomy.

On the other hand, Ankara is alarmed by an emerging reality on the ground in northern Syria, fearing that military gains of the Kurdish militia could be translated into political wins.

For Ankara, a state-building process initiated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political wing of the Kurdish militants, takes root in northern Syria. That appears anathema Turkey, which is desperately battling to reverse that tide, diplomatically and militarily, with little success so far.

And American military assistance to Kurds, international diplomatic support, and almost worldwide recognition of the PYD are what most drive Turkey’s bewilderment. The U.S. deployment of Marine artillery, armored vehicles and 500 forces in and around Manbij seem a public repudiation of the Turkish threats to attack the Kurdish-held city. After American military presence in the city, the prospect of a military takeover of Manbij from Kurds appears less likely.

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