Acrimony Flares up Ahead of Visits by Top American Officials to Turkey

Thomas Seibert

WASHINGTON — As tensions between the United States and Turkey over Syria rise ahead of visits by top US officials to Ankara and Istanbul, Turkish leaders are pointing out their close cooperation with Russia.
The pro-government Turkish media said the United States has become an “enemy” as Ankara’s troops push into the Afrin region of north-western Syria to drive out Kurdish rebels allied with Washington. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the Americans of lying to their NATO partner and prepared for another summit on Syria with the presidents of Russia and Iran after an initial trilateral meeting last November.
In Afrin, Turkish Army units are fighting members of the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian-Kurdish militia seen as a terrorist group by Ankara but as a partner in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) by Washington.
Concerned about the widening Turkish-US rift, the Trump administration is sending two top officials to Turkey. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, going to Ankara, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, headed for Istanbul, are to be in the country within a few days of each other.
Analysts said Tillerson and McMaster should brace for tough rhetoric in their meetings with Turkish officials. “In Ankara, it’s better to be a Russian official than a NATO ally these days,” said Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Washington think-tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a former Turkish lawmaker. Turkey needs Russia’s permission for its operation in Afrin, he said.
In a survey by the Optimar polling institute, almost 72% of Turkish respondents described themselves as “anti-US,” and another 22.7% said they were “partially anti-US.” The poll said 62.1% of Turks asked said they favoured closer ties between their country and Russia. Optimar’s head, Hilmi Dasdemir, told the government-run Anadolu news agency that anti-US sentiments had never run higher.
Erdogan is doing little to break the trend. During a trip to Italy, the Turkish leader said former US President Barack Obama had “lied” to Turkey by promising a YPG retreat from the northern Syrian city of Manbij. Despite the assurances, the YPG is still in Manbij. “Unfortunately, Obama lied to us in this respect,” Erdogan said, adding that the Trump administration was “apparently going in the same direction.”
Ankara called on the United States to withdraw its soldiers from Manbij, which could become the next target of Turkey’s military operation in Syria. Washington said its personnel will stay where they are.
Two high-ranking US generals recently met with Kurdish-led troops in Manbij. “We’re very proud of our positions here and we want to make sure everybody knows it,” US Army Major-General Jamie Jarrard, commander of US Special Operations in Iraq and Syria, said during the visit, New York Times reported.
US Army Lieutenant-General Paul Funk, commander of the US-led coalition against ISIS, issued a thinly veiled warning to Turkey: “You hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves.”
The pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak said Funk had “threatened” Turkey and the English-language Daily Sabah commented that US generals were “turning into warlords in Syria.”
As Tillerson and McMaster prepared to face their Turkish colleagues in an increasingly hostile atmosphere, a debate about the origin of a YPG missile showed the extent of Turkey’s distrust towards the United States. The missile in question destroyed a Turkish tank in northern Syria and killed five Turkish soldiers on February 3.
Erdogan said it is too early to say something about the type and source of the missile. Turkish media reported that the missile was a Russia-type Konkurs but that did not stop the pro-government media from pinning the blame for the death of the soldiers on the United States.
Yeni Safak reported that the Konkurs missiles were part of US weapons supplies for the YPG, adding that the shoulder-fired missiles used to down a Russian fighter jet over Syria’s Idlib province on February 3 also came from the United States. Washington denied supplying those weapons to armed groups in Syria.
“The YPG has repeatedly used Russia-made anti-tank missile 9M113 Konkurs against Turkish targets in Afrin,” Erdemir wrote via e-mail. “Turkey’s pro-government media, however, [have] been quick to put the blame on the US and made repeated calls for closing the Incirlik Airbase in retaliation, conveniently covering up the Russian connection. This shows that the Turkish government’s priority is maintaining cordial relations with Moscow even if it requires smearing its NATO ally Washington.”
Incirlik Airbase in southern Turkey is used to stage attacks on ISIS targets in Syria by fighter jets of a US-led international coalition.
Following the downing of the Russian jet in Idlib, Turkey used its ties to Islamic rebels in the region to return the remains of the Russian pilot, Major Roman Filipov, to Russia. Filipov reportedly killed himself with a hand grenade to avoid being captured. Moscow said Russian military intelligence took Filipov’s body back “in cooperation with Turkish colleagues.”
Turkish pronouncements against the United States are also connected to the country’s election calendar, Erdemir said. “Washington is a convenient whipping boy in Turkish politics and anti-Americanism will continue to be the cornerstone of Erdogan’s re-election strategy in the run-up to 2019 elections” when Turks choose a new president, Erdemir wrote.
Thomas Seibert
is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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