Turkish troops in Ilib, Syria

Syria conflict calls for a diplomatic solution

Next week, Turkish and U.S. officials will meet on the sidelines of the Meeting of Foreign Ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS (Daesh) in Washington.

Next week, Turkish and U.S. officials will meet on the sidelines of the Meeting of Foreign Ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS (Daesh) in Washington.

The working groups have been actively trying to resolve the issues affecting bilateral relations since their establishment almost a year ago, following former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Turkey.

For the last year, the groups tried to find mutually acceptable solutions to some of the problems. Now, at a critical juncture for Turkey-U.S. bilateral ties, the groups will come together one more time. In this meeting, one of the most critical issues on the agenda will be the U.S. withdrawal from Syria and the debates on the aftermath of the U.S. pullout from the region. The outcomes of the meeting will not only determine the state of bilateral cooperation between the two countries in Syria but also impact their future relations. Before this meeting, it is important to indicate some of the points that should be taken into consideration.

First of all, since the announcement of the U.S. decision to withdraw from Syria, there is an ambivalence about the U.S. plans regarding the pullout of its troops. Now it has been almost 40 days since the announcement, but the perceived resistance of some U.S. agencies to the withdrawal decision is generating concern about the implementation of this decision.

The fact that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Trump, following their latest phone conversation, mentioned the significance of close communication to prevent any potential obstacles to implementing the withdrawal plan, demonstrates the presence of this resistance. Both President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed that a safe zone near the Turkish-Syria border will help ease Turkey’s legitimate security concerns.

However, the critical dimension of it will be the implementation of this decision. There has been a fruitful debate between the Turkish-American delegations over the last several weeks, and they have to make sure to establish a committee to observe and monitor the implementation of these decisions in a timely manner. In the absence of it, the delays in the implementation of the plans can generate significant crises in bilateral ties.

Secondly, it is essential to remember that negotiations regarding the safe zone in northern Syria can reach a better point if there is an improvement in the overall current state of bilateral relations. It has become difficult to compartmentalize the relations between the two countries.

Particularly, the U.S. image in Turkey can impact every attempt to negotiate problems between the two countries. Due to its support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the economic sanctions against Turkey last summer, the trial of Hakan Atilla and the absence of any action in the Fetullah Gülen case, the U.S. is facing a significant lack of credibility when it comes to its relations with Turkey. Thus, it will be really important to follow a parallel path of improvement of relations in other fields of crises and contentions while trying to resolve the problems between the two countries in Syria.

While mentioning the issue of trust, it is critical to recall that the PKK is a problem that extends beyond politics in Turkey. The U.S. image suffered its worst setback in Turkey following its support for the YPG. Thus, any message in this critical juncture indicating the continuation of the partnership between the YPG and the U.S. in one way or another will harm the negotiating ground between the two countries.

Finally to take steps to improve the overall relations between the two countries by addressing other areas of contention and crises will be necessary but not sufficient. More comprehensive improvement in the relations will necessitate better cooperation between the two countries in Syria. Their relations started to deteriorate following the divergence of policies on Syria. The Barack Obama administration failed to fulfill its commitments and promises to its allies in the region. The redline decision and the failure of the train-and-equip program only created more tension in bilateral relations.

A safe zone agreement will be important for the future of Turkey-U.S. relations, but the Syrian conflict will continue. Better coordination in diplomacy to resolve the Syrian conflict will be extremely important to avoid any potential spoilers of bilateral ties over Syria. This cooperation in diplomacy can also lead to close coordination in reconstruction in Syria and in the war against the emergence of any terrorist organizations in the region.

Next week, the delegations need to pay attention to these aspects in order to find a sustainable solution to the problem.

[Daily Sabah, 2 February 2019]

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