Viewed from outside, the White House meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
on May 16 took place under the shadow of perhaps one of the most severe crises of recent times in Turkey-U.S. relations.
As the meeting day approached, tension rose proportionally with the dimensions of the crisis. However, despite the two leaders’ essential difference of opinion on the PYD/YPG issue, there was a contrast between the scale of severity of the crisis perceived from outside and the moderate climate generated from these statements given in the White House. In other words, no fire erupted as some had feared.
The reason for this was that the mutual interests of the two countries and the political calculations of the two leaders forced the management of this crisis by taking it under control.
The U.S. side, by declaring it will conduct the operation to remove ISIL from Raqqa with the YPG, the military wing of the PYD, which is the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK), had already closed the file before Erdoğan’s arrival.
Even though the Turkish side demanded the reviewing of this decision, Erdoğan’s trip showed clearly that it is out of the question for the Trump administration to take a step back.
In fact, Erdoğan himself recognized this in his meeting with reporters at the embassy the other evening. “We told them, ‘leave the terror networks alone. Let us wahe the fight against terror together,’ but unfortunately they did not opt for that,” he said.
The matter is now tied to the assurances given by the American
side. The U.S. has pledged that despite cooperating with the PYD/YPG duo, this cooperation will not constitute a threat to Turkey’s security with arms given to the YPG not ending up in the hands of the PKK, for example. Erdoğan said such assurances had been voiced from the beginning, adding that “acts are more important than words.”
Before Erdoğan left for the U.S., while he was in Beijing, he criticized Trump’s PYD/YPG decision harshly. “If we are strategic allies, then we have to make a decision within the [NATO] alliance. If a shadow is cast on this alliance then we will have to look after ourselves,” he said.
In Washington this was toned down to a certain extent. Asked by a reporter
after the Trump meeting about the violation of the commitment to the alliance, he responded as follows: “Our stance is clear. If a threat is formed in that corridor against our country, we will not allow it.” Upon another question, he said: “If promises are not kept, then we will take care of ourselves.”
Compared to the general tone of the statements he made in China, we can see a change of position, with “taking care of ourselves” attached to the condition of “the U.S. not keeping its promise.”
Erdoğan’s stance relieved the American
side somewhat. From now on, a major part of the matter depends on the ability of U.S. military officials to control the PYD/YPG on the field. Another aspect to consider is that it will not be easy for the YPG to focus on Turkey while it is engaged in a major and difficult military operation in Raqqa, 84 kilometers south of the Turkish-Syrian border.
After the Raqqa operation starts, one of the potential issues that could affect the course of Turkish-U.S. relations would come from acts of terror from the PKK. If the PKK
continues to conduct acts of terror, this will inevitably prompt questioning of the U.S. and PYD/YPG cooperation in the Turkish public and at the level of decision-makers, creating new fluctuations in Turkey-U.S. ties.
However, none of these possibilities change the basic outcome of Erdoğan’s visit to Washington. Both sides have accepted that they were not able to overcome the divergence on the PYD/YPG issue and agreed to try to minimize the negative effects of this conflict. They also agreed to move forward in other fields of the relationship, trying not to be affected by the disagreement. Erdoğan’s White House statements show that a consensus has been reached on increasing cooperation in the economy, commerce, investment, energy and defense areas.
When such agreements are reached, is it possible to talk about a major crisis in relations?