Three Turkish delegations spent three days in Washington last week (March 8-11) rebuffing every US offer of a compromise for ending Turkey’s deadly incursion of northern Syria against the Kurds and the Syrian Kurdish PYD party’s YPG militia.
This is what the Trump administration put on the table:
- 1. The PYD-YPG will provide a written commitment via the US to abjure political and military ties with the Turkish PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) underground.
- 2. Kurdish forces will pull out of the two important towns of Afrin and Manbij. Turkish troops will not take over Afrin city, only their proxy, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). For Manbij, the US and Turkey will set up a joint security coordination.
The feasibility of this clause is in doubt, say DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, since Kurdish leaders have warned that if it were implemented, they would retaliate by switching their loyalty from the US to the Russians and the pro-Assad army. The US military would then forfeit its primary ally for ground combat in Syria.
- 3. All Kurdish forces must retreat to the eastern bank of the River Euphrates, leaving none in the west.
- 4. Turkish troops already on Syrian soil and their local surrogates (around 30 Syrian Sunni and Turkman militias) will remain at a standstill on their present lines, and refrain from further attacks or forward movement for more conquests.
On Tuesday, March 13, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, told reporters on the plane taking him to Moscow, that the US and Turkey had come to terms on the military situation in norther Syria. His version of the purported deal consisted of three points: Turkey and the US would oversee the withdrawal of Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection units (UPG) from the town of Manbij; Turkey and the US would chart a plan to secure Manbij during talks that would take place in Washington on March 19; and Turkey had no claims from the Syrian government with regard to the disputed town, but would continue to “monitor” the return of weapons supplied to the Kurds by the United States.
This version was presented, DEBKA Weekly’s sources say, to keep the Turkish public from finding out that their president Tayyip Erdogan had ordered his army chiefs to hold back from seizing Afrin city, until Cavusoclu sat down with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington on March 19. He had planned to put the squeeze on the Trump administration for more steps against the Syrian Kurds.
But this plan ran into terra incognita when President Trump sacked Tillerson, who had been responsible for shaping US relations with Ankara until then, and replaced him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, an unknown quantity. And so, on Thursday, March 15, Cavusoclu postponed his visit to the US, until the new man’s views became known.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, Cavusoclu finalized the purchase of advanced Russian S-400 anti-air missiles, over Washington’s strong objections.
Up until the White House shakeup, Erdogan had planned to maneuver between Washington and Moscow in the manner of a world power strong and independent enough to handle both superpowers on equal terms without incurring repercussions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was ready to go along with Erdogan’s game, even in Syria, not least because Turkey is the first NATO member to shop for top-of-the-line Russian weaponry. For Putin, arms sales to foreign countries is a key element of the Kremlin’s foreign policy, no less than oil and gas exports.
But the Trump administration does not have any such incentive for playing along with Erdogan and his overweening imperial ambitions. And Pompeo as America’s new top diplomat will certainly change the rules set by his predecessor. The administration will soon decide whether Washington should continue to pretend that Turkey’s partnership is so valuable for advancing US interests in Syria, the Middle East and Europe, that it is worth ditching the Kurds.
The cracks forming in that posture came to light in a long article published by The Wall Street Journal on March 11:
”The US military has sharply reduced combat operations at Turkey’s Incirlik air base and is considering permanent cutbacks there… US officials told the WSJ that this shift was driven by tensions between Washington and Ankara… in January the US moved A-10 ground jets from Incirlik base, leaving only refueling aircraft. The number of military members living at the base has also been reduced. At the time, the Pentagon explained the move on the basis of its decision to step up operations in Afghanistan. US sources added that there are internal deliberations about the continued use of Incirlik, which they see “necessary to mitigate any impact from the potential loss of their ability to conduct operations from the base.”
The Pentagon quickly denied any truth in WSJ report. However, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources reported some months ago that the US military was preparing to pull up its stakes in the air base and Turkey at large, and that preparations have accelerated for the US to move out of its two biggest Middle East air bases in Turkey and Qatar.
(See the last DEBKA Weekly 792: Gearing up for Big Mid East Shift: Moving US Bases Back to Saudi Arabia.)
The Trump administration is fast approaching implementation of a policy decision to downgrade US ties with the Turkish president and Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.