President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (R) and U.S. President Donald Trump (L) talk during the walk to take the family photo at the NATO summit in Brussels, July 11, 2018.

How to handle Turkey-US tensions

On the condition that both sides engage in sincere negotiations, Ankara-Washington relations can easily get back on track again in a very short period of time

Following diplomatic traffic between Washington and Ankara in the last few weeks, including Defense Minister Hulusi Akar’s visit to Washington, working group meetings and phone calls between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, there have been various rumors about the future of relations between the two countries.

After a crisis-driven 2018, many hoped to see a better period between Turkey and the U.S. in 2019. However, the first two months of the year demonstrate that there are still some potential disagreements between the two countries.

The debate regarding the safe zone in Syria is reaching a critical point as the two sides are negotiating the nature of such a zone in northern Syria. Any attempt by the U.S. to use this zone to protect the People’s Protection Units (YPG) may result in a serious crisis in relations.

The Turkish side also expects clarification on what the future of U.S. relations with the YPG will look like. Similarly, the S-400 debate also constitutes a bottleneck in bilateral ties, standing out as another difficult to resolve crisis. There were even rumors about a potential escalation around this in the last few weeks.

At the same time, we have not seen an improvement in the Halkbank case, which could be another bombshell in relations.

Turkey also has grievances that include a lack of progress in the case of the extradition or deportation of Fetullah Gülen, leader of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ).

Thus, those working tirelessly to resolve these issues should also consider other steps to help alleviate the urgency of the situation.

First, it is always wise to be prepared for potential fallout from the Syria and S-400 issues. The escalation of tensions between the two countries due to disagreements can easily bring relations to the edge of a major crisis that would be tough to resolve.

To understand the potential impact of such issues on bilateral ties in advance can force those involved in negotiations to be more innovative in their ways of containing them.

Meanwhile, to underestimate the security concerns an ally of 70 years because of a partnership with a terror group for the last four years is not a sensible decision. Empathy on the side of the U.S. is key to understanding the situation.

Similarly, any escalation in tensions due to the S-400 missile systems will significantly damage defense industry cooperation between the two countries. It will be hard to fix the fallout if the U.S. attempts to implement the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The public will react, the government will retaliate and Ankara will search for other sellers. So a potential escalation could create unintended consequences for bilateral relations. This potential escalation should be prevented beforehand. This can include forming committees to technically find a solution and allay the concerns of both sides.

Second, areas of cooperation between the two countries should be strengthened to indicate the nature of bilateral relations that are more multidimensional than assumed. There are not just divergences in relations. In some areas, convergence in strategic approaches and interest still exists. Cooperation between Turkey and the U.S. in Afghanistan is one of those areas. Since the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Turkey has acted very closely with the U.S. in Afghanistan. The last round of negotiations in regards to the conflict in the country also took place in Istanbul.

Cooperation against terror is the second potential area. Of course cooperation, in regards to PKK members, will be hard to strengthen without a significant change in U.S. policy regarding the YPG.

The U.S. administration should not expect the Turkish public and government to change their negative stance toward the U.S.’ support for the YPG, even if the U.S. has offered monetary rewards for the arrest of some PKK members.

Cooperation against terror in the context of the PKK will not be convincing, at least for the Turkish public, without the U.S. severing its ties with the YPG and the return of the weapons provided to this organization for the last four years.

However, in other areas of counterterrorism cooperation, there will be more space for cooperation and coordination following the return of Daesh to its default settings, including suicide attacks and bombing.

In fact, there are ways for both countries to prevent such crises through negotiations and to contain crises after emergence.

Considering the lack of trust on the promises of the U.S. and its commitments in this sphere, the U.S. may consider taking steps to build confidence in its policies. Trying to build a safe zone without cooperating with Turkey or escalating the S-400 crisis are not ways to fix the confidence issue.

[Daily Sabah, 25 February 2019]

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