After a week of intense meetings between the American and Turkish officials, the two countries reached an understanding to normalise relations. But the disputes on YPG-related issues remain.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met in Ankara on February 15 to discuss regional politics and improve ties after weeks of tension.
US-Turkey relations were frayed over a number of issues recently, namely the US' continued support for the YPG and the US troops in Manbij in support of YPG. The US promised Turkey it would withdraw the YPG from the city after Daesh was defeated, but it has been one-and-a-half years and the YPG is still in Manbij. YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which is designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and EU and has been fighting the Turkish state for more than 30 years.
But Tillerson's visit, which Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu earlier said would determine the future of Turkey’s relation with the US, concluded with a common understanding on normalising bilateral relations. However, the parties couldn’t reach a full agreement on the US arming the YPG and withdrawing its troops from the area.
On which points did they agree?
“Manbij issue is something that we need to work on – it is strategically important. The US and its allies should control Manbij, other groups shouldn’t be let in.” Tillerson told journalists in a press conference after the two ministers’ meeting on Friday.
As a response to his comments, his Turkish counterpart Cavusoglu said in the press conference on Friday that Turkey can take steps with the US once YPG leaves Syria’s Manbij after Ankara proposed the US and Turkish troops station together in Manbij.
Despite Cavusoglu's underlining the need for the US to cut its support for the YPG, Tillerson said, “weapons provided to Syrian SDF would be limited, mission specific and provided on an incremental basis to achieve military objectives only.”
Turkey launched an operation against the YPG in Afrin on January 20 and revealed its plans to move forward to Manbij after its operation is completed there. Since the YPG has been in the city since August 2016, Turkey has been stressing that the YPG presence in Manbij is its primary concern and calling the US to withdraw its troops in the area. But the US has called the YPG a “reliable ally” in fighting Daesh. Some high-level US military officials visited Manbij repeatedly as a sign of their support for the YPG against any possible Turkish operation.
Erdogan said, "We will destroy every terrorist starting from the ones standing next to them. And then they will understand that it's better for them to not to stand along with them," on Tuesday as a response to latest photos of US soldiers with the YPG militants.
Asked about the YPG/PKK presence in Syria's Manbij – a standing bone of contention between Ankara and Washington – Cavusoglu said they would create a mechanism of handling the Syria issue and it would prioritise Manbij.
“We should be sure that the YPG crossed to the eastern side of the Euphrates River, and we should see its execution together,” Cavusoglu said, adding that it is important who controls these cities and provides security for their stability.
Four meetings in one week
The Tillerson-Erdogan meeting was the latest of the efforts to ease the strained ties between the two countries.
Representatives of two countries met four times in the last week in different locations after the US and Turkey have released opposing accounts of a phone call between US President Donald Trump and Erdogan on January 25.
A Turkish source speaking to Reuters denied that the statement issued by the White House regarding Erdogan’s phone call with Trump accurately reflected the content of their conversation.
The part of the statement, which Ankara denied, said Trump has “urged Turkey to de-escalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties” in northern Syria, warning that Ankara’s actions “risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.”
Trump’s National Security Adviser General HR McMaster visited Ankara on February 10 and met with Turkey’s Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin. This time, parties released identical statements on the meeting.
Four days later, the US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli met at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday.
Controversial statements from Mattis and Tillerson
The next day Canikli told the Turkish press that Mattis told him the US can separate the PKK from the YPG and that they can force the YPG to fight against the PKK – a plan Canikli considers “unrealistic."
Canikli also said Mattis told him the US will work on a plan to take the arms back from the YPG.
The same day, Tillerson made a controversial statement before he was heading to Turkey from Lebanon. He said the US never gave heavy arms to the YPG, therefore there is nothing to take back, despite Mattis’ confirmation on the US support to the YPG.
When Tillerson arrived in Ankara on Thursday, he went to the Presidential Palace and the meeting with Erdogan took more than 3 hours. That was one of the longest meetings between the US and Turkish officials for years.