Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Rehabilitated US-Turkey relations provide rare light in Syria's darkness

The reconciliation could have meaningful implications for the embattled Kurds

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu after their press conference in Ankara, Turkey. Tumay Berkin / EPA
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu after their press conference in Ankara, Turkey. Tumay Berkin / EPA

Onlookers breathed a sigh of relief following US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s upbeat trip to Ankara last week, and with good reason. US-Turkey relations have been deteriorating rapidly recently – largely over US support for the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia branded as terrorists by Turkey – with far-reaching implications. Not long after it began a bloody campaign against the YPG in the northern Syrian city of Afrin, Turkey discussed shifting the offensive east to Manbij, where US troops are stationed. “You hit us, we will respond aggressively,” warned US general Paul Funk. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted with threats of an “Ottoman slap”. Ahead of Mr Tillerson’s visit, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu predicted the relationship would “either be fixed or completely broken”. So the agreement on Friday to defuse the crisis is a rare positive development from Syria, where various actors are vying for control in an intractable conflict that has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced millions. It could also help the Kurds, who deserve praise for bravely crushing ISIL.

The speed at which US-Turkey ties have soured caused concern. Following the failed coup in 2016, for which Mr Erdogan blames US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a widely reported New York trial implicated senior Turkish officials in a plot to help Iran evade sanctions. This year, the US revealed plans for a 30,000-strong YPG-led border force in northern Syria to counter Iran, prevent the resurgence of ISIL and foster governance in the area. Turkey’s Afrin offensive followed. Each development heightened the chances of a direct confrontation, the fallout of which would be horrifying.

In a war exacerbated by proxies, Mr Tillerson’s honesty is welcome. “We find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship,” he told a press conference in Ankara. He and Mr Erdogan decided, he said, to “talk about how we go forward”. Welcome too, are America’s concerted efforts to rescue the relationship. The two most senior US national security representatives – National Security Advisor HR McMaster and Defence Secretary James Mattis – met their Turkish counterparts last week in Istanbul and Brussels respectively.

It is not yet clear what rehabilitated relations will mean for the Kurds. Mr Tillerson has called on Ankara to show restraint in Afrin, while a provisional agreement to deploy joint US-Turkey forces in Manbij implies Turkey will heed the call. Perhaps Washington can encourage Ankara to resume talks with the PKK, although that seems unlikely. Dialogue broke down in 2015 after a 30-month ceasefire. But if such a peace can be engineered, it will cool one of Syria’s most volatile fissures. As various self-serving actors pillage the carcass of a country whose civil war will soon enter its eighth year, the importance of this latest exhibition of conciliation cannot be overstated.