America Loses Its Man in Ankara

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was Washington’s behind-the-scenes ally in Turkey’s fight against the Islamic State. Now what happens?

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - JUNE 25:  Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (L) speaks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) during the NATO Foreign Affairs Ministers meeting at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on June 25, 2014. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - JUNE 25: Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (L) speaks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) during the NATO Foreign Affairs Ministers meeting at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on June 25, 2014. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Thursday’s surprise resignation of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu risks upending the currently fraught but still functioning relationship between Washington and Ankara — two wary allies that nonetheless need each other in their shared fight against the Islamic State.

Davutoglu was seen as a reliable U.S. ally and voice of sobriety inside a government turning increasingly authoritarian under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He was widely considered a deft diplomat who was far more tolerant of the Kurds — America’s proxy ground force against the Islamic State — than his president.

“We could work well with the prime minister,” Gen. John Allen, the Obama administration’s former point man in the fight against the Islamic State, told Foreign Policy. “His successor may be a very different matter.”

Current and former State Department officials also said Davutoglu’s close working relationship with U.S. diplomats would be missed. State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner described Davutoglu’s sudden departure as “an internal political matter for Turkey” and declined to comment further.

For nearly two years, the United States has sought to focus Turkey’s attention on the Islamic State as the Sunni extremists tear through Syria and Iraq. But under Erdogan, Ankara has instead remained far more worried about its generational battle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK — a separatist group that both Turkey and the United States have declared a terrorist organization.

The United States depends on Turkey to stanch the flow of Islamic State fighters across its border with Syria and wants continued military access to the Incirlik Air Base — a move Ankara only granted less than a year ago. Turkey, meanwhile, relies on U.S. airstrikes to shrink Islamic State insurgents and push them further from its backyard.

Still, the two capitals bitterly diverge over America’s support for Kurdish fighters in Syria.

After a brutal and bloody four-month battle, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) wrested control of the Syrian border town of Kobani in early 2015 from the Islamic State. In doing so, they gained newfound respect from the West and since have been considered by Washington as the most effective ground force against the militant group.

But the YPG is also linked to the PKK, and therefore Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters a national security threat. Erdogan’s distrust of Kurdish militants only grew after a March bombing in Ankara that killed 37 people and was initially blamed on the PKK. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), a breakaway faction of the banned Kurdish organization, eventually claimed responsibility for the attack.

The disconnect has come to a head at the Manbij pocket, a major border crossing that foreign fighters have used to pass into Syria from Turkey.

Barak Barfi, an expert on Kurds at the New America think tank, said Turkey wants to prevent Kurdish fighters from controlling Manbij.

“Ankara wants to make the Manbij pocket a safe zone — free of Kurdish control and a launching pad to take down the regime,” Barfi said. But the United States sees the Manbij pocket as a “stepping stone” to retake Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital in Syria.

Disagreement over the Kurdish fighters devolved into a bruising public spat earlier this year when Brett McGurk, who now heads up the State Department’s campaign against the Islamic State, met with YPG members in Kobani. After photographs of the meeting surfaced, Erdogan lashed out at the United States for siding with Turkey’s enemies.

“How can we trust you? Is it me that is your partner, or is it the terrorists in Kobani?” Erdogan said.

In Davutoglu, the United States had an interlocutor who harbored a much more moderate approach to the Kurds. Though he was a weak prime minister and enjoyed little power or autonomy, he was an important channel for many U.S. officials to convey their thoughts and concerns.

“Davutoglu’s exit will mean there’s fewer voices within the government willing to provide more pragmatic views on the Kurds to Erdogan,” Andrew Bowen, a Washington-based expert on Turkey and Syria, said. “Whether Erdogan ever listened? It varied.”

With the prime minister out of the picture, Ankara may show even more resistance to U.S. collaboration with Kurdish fighters in Syria, said one U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Turkey could also backtrack on progress it has made in closing its border with Syria, the official said.

Davutoglu’s departure has largely been attributed to his differences with Erdogan on economic policy, expanded presidential powers, and pretrial detention for dissidents. On Thursday, Davutoglu sought to downplay those differences. He will leave office May 22.

“I feel no reproach, anger, or resentment against anyone,” Davutoglu told reporters. “No one has ever heard any word from me against our president and never will.”

But the two politicians tussled over many issues, including resolving the country’s protracted dispute with its Kurdish minority — an issue on which Davutoglu was far more dovish.

Last month, Davutoglu told Turkish newspapers that the government was considering opening negotiations with the PKK, as long as its fighters disarmed. Shortly after his words were published, Erdogan openly rebuked the notion, saying the total defeat of the PKK was the only option forward, Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper reported. That resulted in Davutoglu pulling a complete reversal on April 5 and repeating Erdogan’s position that peace talks were not under consideration.

Erdogan’s current refusal to engage with Kurdish groups breaks from his previous efforts in making peace overtures. But experts say his failure to broker a lasting cease-fire has soured him on future talks.

Erdogan’s “current views on the Kurdish issue stem less from his core beliefs than from the embarrassment he is experiencing in not being able to quell the violence,” Barfi said.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will replace Davutoglu at an upcoming meeting, Turkish officials told Reuters. Erdogan is expected to install a successor who is less opposed to altering Turkey’s constitution — a move that would strengthen the presidency at the expense of the parliament.

That has worried longtime Erdogan critics who fear the next prime minister will be a loyalist who does little to deter the current president’s tendencies to quell dissent and curtail free speech.

“Erdogan will replace Davutoglu with a loyalist of his choice,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish MP and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “We can expect him to take full control of Turkey’s domestic and international affairs, including ongoing negotiations with the U.S. and EU on Syria, Turkey’s EU membership process, and rapprochement with Israel.”

Still, major changes to the U.S.-Turkish relationship are unlikely to come as a result of Davutoglu’s ouster, given Erdogan’s monopoly on power.

“Erdogan has been the mover and shaker and the real decider in Turkish politics on major issues like Syria,” said Aaron Stein, a resident fellow of the Atlantic Council.

Likely successors include Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus, Transport Minister Binali Yildirim, and Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law.

FP chief national security correspondent Dan De Luce contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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