Fuelling new source of energy for US-Turkey relations

Tuesday, 2017-04-04 17:01:54
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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Ankara. (Yasin Bulbul/Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters)
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NDO – US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson recently made a visit to Turkey as the most senior American official to visit the country since the inauguration of President Donald Trump. With the goal of providing new energy for a relationship that had undergone tension under the previous US President, Tillerson 's visit is expected to relieve scepticism and strain between the two NATO allies.

The relationship between Turkey and the United States has been described as "unhappy marriage". The two sides have had public collisions over the Syria issue and the crackdown by Ankara following a failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016. The way Washington has sided with Fethullah Gülen, a cleric who currently lives in exile in the US and was blamed by Ankara for being behind the failed coup, has also severely strained the bilateral relations.

In addition, increased US support to Kurds in Syria, who are reportedly closely affiliated to the insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Turkey, has faced strong opposition from Ankara. The Turks have responded indignantly to US aid to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). They hoped for a reset of this policy under the new US administration. However, Ankara had immediate disappointment when the US considered increasing its military aid to Kurds in Syria, which have been listed as terrorists by Turkey.

In its biggest military rally ever in Syria, US aircraft have transported PYD gunmen and Syrian Arab Coalition fighters crossing the Euphrates River to take the Tabqa dam near the city of Raqqa in Syria. This move disappointed Turkey, who hoped for more effective cooperation with the new US administration if Washington broke up its coalition with the Kurds to fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria.

With its strategic geographic location between Europe and Asia, Turkey is considered an important NATO member and an indispensable partner of the US in the anti-terrorism war which has been deployed by Washington in the Middle East. The worsened relations with Ankara can lead to the risk that the US may lose its access to Turkey's Incirlik air base from where it deploys fighter jets to carry out airstrikes against IS in Syria.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Turkey, made right after Turkey said it had 'ended' the Euphrates Shield military campaign in northern Syria, aimed to shore up mutual disagreements and reaffirm US determination to improve the US-Turkey alliance. Earlier, the Euphrates Shield military campaign increased tensions in bilateral ties since Ankara aimed to “kill two birds with one stone" through the campaign: to push IS militants away from its border and also stop the advance of US-backed local Kurdish fighters. Tillerson acknowledged that it is difficult to persuade Turkey to cooperate with the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the battle against the IS in Syria, but he also sought more support from Turkey in the fight against terrorism.

Despite existing disagreements between the two sides, cooperation with Turkey is indispensable for the US, following the Trump administration’s top priority of fighting against IS. Determining this priority, Washington even renounced its attempt to overthrow Syrian President Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which could never happen under the previous administration of President Obama.

During the visit to Turkey, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also conveyed a message admitting that the US is no longer focused on ousting Bashar al-Assad as it seeks a new strategy to end Syria's civil war, stressing that Washington would focus on working with powers like Turkey and Russia to seek a political settlement, rather than focusing on Assad.

Recent attempts from both Turkey and the US have shown adjustments of their policies in a bid to mend strained bilateral ties.