My colleague Adam Garrie has spoken of the subdued tone of the joint press conference held during the summit meeting between US President Trump and Turkish President Erdogan.
Undoubtedly part of the reason for the subdued tone was the sense in the White House of the President being under siege because of the bogus story of the leak of ‘highly classified intelligence’ by President Trump to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. However there is no doubt – as my colleague Adam Garrie correctly says – that the principal cause of the tension between Trump and Erdogan are the differences between them about the treatment of the Kurds in Syria
Erdogan spoke for a lengthier period than Donald Trump. He reiterated his stance against the PKK as well as the Kurdish YPG militias currently fighting in Syria.
The only problem is that America is a strong supporter of the YPG in the form of the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) which are compromised primarily of YPG fighters and commanders. America has recently given heavy weapons to Kurdish forces in Syria as they prepare to advance on Raqqa, the capital of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).
It remains unclear how America can be a Turkish and Kurdish ally at a time when both sides are fighting an open war in Syria and also in Iraq where America continues to maintain a large military presence.
It was one thing being a Turkish ally and covertly supporting Kurds in places like Iraq when Turkey wasn’t directly engaged in fighting Kurds in Arab countries, but now that this reality has changed, it is difficult to see how anyone, let alone a confused American administration could juggle this mutually incompatible alliance.
Indeed, recently, one of President Erdogan’s advisers spoke of how Turkish missiles might ‘accidentally’ strike US troops acting as a buffer between Turkish and Kurdish fighters in Syria. These are hardly the words of ‘allies’.
In fact to Erdogan’s and Turkey’s growing dismay the US has increasingly been arming the Kurds in Syria with heavier and heavier weapons, and has been sending more and more US advisers to Syria to work with the Kurds, as the US has come to look increasingly to the Kurds to pursue the war against ISIS.
What is interesting is that US policy of backing the Kurds against ISIS is being increasingly mirrored by Russia’s policy of backing the Kurds to do the same thing. Consider for example Russian President Putin’s comments about the Kurds during his recent visit to China
I discussed this matter with the Turkish President. He expressed his concerns in this respect during our meeting in Sochi. I said to him then and I can say publicly now that there is no secret here. Unlike other countries, we have not declared any intention of supplying arms to Kurdish fighters. They do not have any great need for our supplies in any case, as they have other supply channels. We do not see any need to get involved in arms supplies.
But the Kurds are a real factor in the situation in Syria and their fighters are taking part in operations against the so-called Islamic State and are among the most combat-ready groups; therefore, we think it perfectly justified to maintain working contacts with them, if only to avoid possible confrontation and situations that could pose a threat to our service personnel.
I do not see anything here that could give our Turkish partners cause for concern. We are in contact, our position is open, and I hope that our Turkish partners understand it too. I am aware of the Turkish President’s concerns – and we discussed this yesterday – over the United States’ announcement that it will supply arms to the Kurds. We do not do this.
Obviously there are differences in the US and Russian approach. As Putin was careful to say – and as he says he said to Erdogan during the recent meeting in Sochi – Russia is not arming the Kurds, and since the Kurds are obtaining arms from “other supply channels” (ie. the US) Russia has no need to do so. However just as the US is looking to the Kurds to carry forward the war against ISIS, so Russia is doing the same.
In other words there is greater commonality of policy on the subject of the Kurds between the US and Russia than there is between either of these two countries and Erdogan and Turkey.
The events once again emphasise the disastrous extent of the failure of Erdogan’s policies in Syria. Whereas before 2011 Syria was peaceful and friendly, and the border between Turkey and Syria was secure, Turkey now faces a hostile Syria with an increasingly powerful anti Turkish Kurdish militia backed by both nuclear superpowers becoming entrenched on its border.
The Syrian conflict is far from over and Erdogan still has some cards left to play. The Russians need Erdogan’s help to consolidate the Astana peace process and to secure the ceasefire and the ‘de-escalation areas’ which they are trying to set up in Syria. Turkey remains a large and important country, with both nuclear superpowers anxious to have good relations with it.
However Erdogan needs to play his cards right. That means accepting that his neo-Ottoman policy of trying to turn Syria into an Islamist Turkish vassal state – and even possibly of seizing some of its territory – has utterly failed. If he does that then he stands some chance of extricating Turkey from the Syrian mess he has got it into with a minimum of damage if only because the two nuclear superpowers – which seem to bear him remarkably little ill-will – look willing to help him do so.
The alternative is for him to press on even as his isolation grows greater. In that case his and Turkey’s problems are going to get much worse.