Sword of Damocles over new momentum in Turkish-American ties: Syria - M5 Dergi
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Sword of Damocles over new momentum in Turkish-American ties: Syria

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If elected, Trump is likely to withdraw from Syria, and uncoordinated withdrawal would not only mean ceding influence to Iran but also damaging Turkish-US ties

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken invited Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan to attend bilateral strategic mechanism meetings in the US last week. Before the meetings, Türkiye’s intelligence chief, Ibrahim Kalin, had visited the US, signaling an attempt to strengthen Turkish-US relations. While the NATO allies seem to have found ways to improve their cooperation in various areas, unresolved issues that led to the deterioration of the relationship in the first place mean they can only go so far. Until these issues are addressed, progress will not achieve its full potential.

Thorny ties

In recent years, the relationship between Ankara and Washington hit an all-time low. Türkiye saw America’s support for the YPG terror group as a national security threat, and the fact that the leader of the terrorist group FETO was being harbored in Pennsylvania after the 2016 coup attempt worsened the situation. On the other hand, the US was concerned about Türkiye’s engagement with Russia, particularly the purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense systems. This led to the imposition of CAATSA sanctions on Türkiye and their expulsion from the F-35 fighter jet program.

However, Russia’s war on Ukraine changed things for both countries. While Türkiye maintained communication with Moscow, it rejected Russia’s assaults and provided Ukraine with strategic weapon systems and supplies. Türkiye fully implemented the Montreux agreement as the gatekeeper to the Black Sea, preventing Russian warships from entering. Furthermore, by providing military supplies to Ukraine, Türkiye demonstrated its role in NATO’s collective security. The US and Türkiye agreed to produce 155mm shells in Texas, and Turkish fighter jets helped secure allied nations’ airspace in the Black Sea against potential Russian incursions.

The Russian invasion highlighted Türkiye’s strategic importance and led to increased economic and energy cooperation between Türkiye and the US. Türkiye adjusted its energy relationship with Russia, and Türkiye became one of the largest importers of American LNG. A recent memorandum of understanding between Türkiye and Turkmenistan on exporting Turkmen gas to Türkiye could significantly reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas.

The relationship between Ankara and Washington gained momentum after Türkiye accepted Sweden’s NATO bid and the US Senate approved Türkiye’s purchase of F-16 fighter jets. This decision paved the way for implementing a new and different approach.

In the past, the two nations tried to resolve their disputes first via negotiations between their executive branches. However, they are now attempting to do it in reverse. They first agree on new areas of cooperation and then try to resolve disputes. This means that areas of collaboration are the first item on the agenda, which helps rebuild trust and partnership.

To further facilitate this new approach, Turkish authorities are communicating with the White House and the US Senate. This is a significant change from the past, where communication was limited to the executive branch. Two US senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Chris Murphy, visited Türkiye shortly after the F-16 deal was greenlighted and met with the Turkish president. They emphasized the new momentum in the relationship and signaled that both sides are working to resolve the dispute over Syria. During his visit to the US, Fidan met with Benjamin Cardin, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and other members of Congress.

Can relations improve?

The relationship between Türkiye and the US has the potential to improve if they increase cooperation in certain areas, but there are limitations. Syria hangs as the sword of Damocles over the heads of Türkiye and the US. If they cannot resolve the dispute over US support for the terrorist group YPG in Syria, this limit will continue to exist, and the full potential of their relationship will not be realized.

The conflict over Syria remains a major source of tension between Türkiye and the US. The current relatively stable situation in Syria enables the current approach of prioritizing areas of cooperation. However, any new escalation of the conflict could destroy progress. The terrorist YPG recently announced a new social contract and is planning to hold pseudo-elections in April. This move is being made to establish an autonomous entity in Syria. The YPG also signed a new contract with a US lobbying firm to work on US recognition of its so-called “Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.” It is evident that Türkiye would strongly oppose any such move.

Even if the situation in Syria remains calm and the US doesn’t support separatist agendas, there is still a potential for disruption in the future. The US is currently considering plans to withdraw from Syria, and pressure from Baghdad may force them to withdraw from Iraq as well. If he is returned to the Oval Office, Biden’s opponent Donald Trump is likely to withdraw from Syria. An uncoordinated withdrawal from Syria would not only mean ceding influence to Iran but also damaging Turkish-American relations.

Both Türkiye and the US have a shared interest in finding a political solution for Syria and combating Daesh/ISIS terrorists, but their policies and methods must align. If they can overcome their differences in Syria, the potential for their relationship is limitless. Economic collaboration, geopolitical joint action, energy cooperation, and collective defense investments are all areas that could help improve the relationship. However, without a roadmap for Syria, building lasting trust and partnership will be difficult.

While the visits of Türkiye’s top diplomat and intelligence chief are part of a mutual strategy to rebuild trust and partnership, they are unlikely to work miracles. A roadmap for Syria is needed to turn this new momentum into a stable level of cooperation.

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