By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
US officials who view Turkey as America’s natural ally are heading a State Department delegation to Ankara that will seek to work closely with Turkey on a Turkey first track for the US, hoping to put recent controversies behind US-Turkey relations and ignore continued clashes in Syria. The pro-Turkey elements at the State Department are jazzed that US President Donald Trump has left part of northern Syria and they hope a new era in Ankara-Washington relations might be opening. The crowning achievement will be a successful visit by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Washington on November 13 to meet US President Donald Trump.
The US officials are heading off to Turkey soon, a senior State Department official said on Wednesday. This will include Special Representative for Syria Engagement and anti-ISIS envoy James Jeffrey who will arrive in Turkey on November 8. Jeffrey will meet with members of the Syrian opposition who are allied with Turkey as well.
“We’re going to be meeting with the Turks in Ankara to talk to them about implementation of the October 17 joint statement,” the official said. Initially the US had claimed this was a ceasefire, but Turkey ordered the US to call it a “pause” in Turkey’s operations against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. “Turkey is a natural ally of our on the larger Syrian issues of the Assad regime, of refugees, of chemical weapons, of the presence of the Iranians,” the official said.
The official was pumped up by feeling that America is finally going to achieve something with big power politics. Tired of wasting time in eastern Syria with slogging through the anti-ISIS war and working with substate groups like the SDF which the US State Department viewed as a temporary and tactical partnership, the diplomats think they are in the drivers seat. And it’s time to drive. “Maintaining very close contacts with the Russians,” is now a priority. The US wants the Russians to make sure the US patrols in northern Syria to clash with Russian patrols or the Syrian regime. The US is also happy that after eight years of war, 500,000 dead, 10 million displaced in Syria, that a “constitutional committee” has been launched in Geneva. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s pet project was Geneva. The Russians lured Iran and Turkey to Astana in 2017 to sideline the Americans. But now the US thinks it is back in the game in Geneva. “We did get this,” the US official said.
The US believes the Russias are now in between the Assad regime and something else. The US official claimed the Russians a kind of “Potemkin village” to prop up Assad and that in fact Syria is just a broken, ruined country. The US intimates that Syria will remain rubble until Russia and the regime acquiesce to what the US wants. Hint: That means Iran must leave Syria.
US Ambassador David Satterfield will lead the interagency delegation. The US now believes the Russians are flexible on Syria because Assad has won back part of the country. They think Assad wants to take back millions of refugees and that to do that Russia will agree to things the US wants.
The US has accepted Turkey’s right to take over a part of northern Syria based on the October 17 discussions. But it isn’t an “agreement,” the US says. There is still shelling and although the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) withdrew, there are still clashes. “It doesn’t involve Turkish army forces themselves. It’s basically these Turkish-supported Syria Arab militias,” the US says. The US was very concerned that they were heading for the city of Tell Tamer, a Christian area, the official noted. “The Turks have assured us repeatedly at high levels that the’re not trying to take Tell Tamer.” The US has raised this at “high” levels.
The SDF says that “Turkey has been violating the ceasefire and Americans on the ground have been witnessing this and reporting to superiors. We expect America to fullfill its duty as the guarantor of the ceasefire agreement.”
The US is trying to secure oil fields but the State Department doesn’t know about or care about this mission. As usual with Syrian policy the State Department conducts one foreign policy and the Pentagon another and the White House a third policy. So the State Department tells reporters to ask the Defense Department what is happening with the oil fields near Rmeilan in northeast Syria. That’s Pentagon territory. But the State Department and James Jeffrey, the Syria envoy and anti-ISIS envoy, does care about the anti-ISIS campaign, so they note that the oil fields might be anchor for the anti-ISIS fight and the “legal basis for our military to be there in northeast Syria in the first place with our local SDF allies.” The SDF needs the oil. The US State Department has no guidance on what to do with the oil though.
The SDF, the US says, is working as a kind of contractor to guard 10,000 ISIS detainees. The SDF is committed to do that “for as long as they’re allowed to,” the official said. That means sooner or later the SDF will be removed from more areas. The Kurds have worried about ethnic-cleansing and the US appears to admit that it happened in the “first couple of days.” The US says attacks on medical personnel may have been deliberate. Usually NATO allies don’t attack medics, but they have been attacked in Syria.
The US claims that Turkey is taking seriously the abuses in the Turkish-occupied “safe zone,” but that the “problem is that the people doing the fighting are these ill-disciplined Arab militias, some of whom we’ve worked with in the past when we were arming the opposition but many of whom are ill-disciplined, relatively radical and their ideology is essentially Islamic ideology.” So the US admitted to arming groups that ended up fighting the SDF, which the US also armed (READ the backstory). The US says the government of Turkey is responsible for these fighters. The US says it opposed Turkey using them in northeast Syria.
US strategy in Syria remains the defeat of ISIS, a diplomatic process and reducing Iran’s role. The US is still critical of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his “broadside attacks on us.” Nevertheless US President Donald Trump says Erdogan is coming to the US in a week. Some Senators and members of Congress have opposed the trip or demanded answers about Turkey’s actions in Syria. Turkey has sought to highlight its fight against ISIS by claiming it has detained Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s family members. Trump seems pleased with Erdogan, saying they are working together to eradicate terrorism and that Trump wants an end to hostilities with Kurds. Erdogan told Trump Turkey has captured ISIS members. The last time Erdogan visited Washington his security detail attacked US protesters in 2017. The US eventually dropped charges against 11 of those involved, a goodwill gesture meant to apologize to Turkey. It remains to be seen if protests will be permitted in Washington during the visit or if they will be prevented because protests are considered an “affront” to Turkey. Usually security of foreign countries are not allowed to attack American protests but US relations with Turkey are important if the US State Department can appear more relevant after years of the Pentagon sidelining its policies on Syria.
For others in the US the new Turkish spring of relations is imagined as a way to get Turkey to support US maximum pressure on Iran (want to know how we got here? Read my book After ISIS, just released). This will be difficult since Turkey wants to increase trade to Iran. The US is also hoping to solve the S-400 crisis where Turkey bought Russian air defense as part of its partnership with Moscow. US officials hope that giving Turkey what it wants in Syria and reducing US support for the SDF could get Turkey to buy less weapons from Russia. The S-400s have already arrived, so they aren’t going back. But the US might dangle some Patriot missiles in front of Turkey so Turkey can have both US and Russian air defense and practice to see which is better against either the US-made F-35 or the Russian SU-35 that Turkey may want. Turkey is a bridge between east and West and between NATO and Russia, and it needs all the weapons systems in the world as both sides bid for Ankara’s support.