Tillerson Can’t Fix What Ails U.S. Ties With Turkey

The Trump administration’s not-so-charm offensive may have steered U.S.-Turkey relations away from the brink of collapse. That’s no cause for a victory lap just yet.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speak in a press conference in Ankara, Turkey on Feb. 16, 2018. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speak in a press conference in Ankara, Turkey on Feb. 16, 2018. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration appears to have pulled relations with NATO ally Turkey away from a “crisis point” after a slew of high-level meetings over the past week. But sharp disagreements on everything from the war in Syria to Russia’s role in the Middle East make it unlikely that the United States can restore warm ties anytime soon with a country long seen as the southern flank of the Western alliance in Europe.

“We’re not going to act alone any longer. We’re not going to be the U.S. doing one thing and Turkey doing another,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at a press conference on Friday in Ankara after meetings with Turkish officials, including Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“We’re going to lock arms, we’re going to work through the issues that are causing difficulties for us, and we’re going to resolve them,” Tillerson said.

Cavusoglu echoed the effort to put a brave face on the rapidly souring relationship. “We have taken an important turn in terms of normalizing our relations. We reached an agreement and an understanding,” he said.

But few details were forthcoming. U.S. and Turkish officials worked through the night to put out a joint statement on Friday meant to showcase some diplomatic breakthroughs, but it was heavy on promises and light on specifics. It included a plan to establish something referred to as a “results-oriented mechanism” to bolster their relationship, which will be “activated no later than mid-March.”

There were no details on what the mechanism is — or how it could possibly address the fundamental disagreements that have surfaced between Washington and Ankara in recent years and which have grown even more stark in recent weeks.

The sharpest point of contention between the two sides — other than long-standing Turkish suspicion that the United States was somehow behind a July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey — is a widely divergent view of how to deal with the crisis in Syria. The United States is backing and arming Kurdish militias fighting in northern Syria, seeing in them among the few effective troops on the ground to fight both Islamic State terrorists and regime forces of Bashar al-Assad.

Turkey, which views Kurdish militants as terrorists and a top domestic threat, launched a military offensive against U.S.-supported Syrian-Kurdish forces in Afrin, a region in northwestern Syria.

Turkey reportedly proposed jointly deploying U.S. and Turkish troops to Syria to ease tensions amid its offensive.

On the surface, simply muddling through looks like a much-needed diplomatic win for the Trump administration, which is struggling to keep its patchwork of Middle Eastern allies, and especially Turkey, focused on defeating the Islamic State in Syria.

Tillerson wasn’t alone on this quest. Days before the secretary of state’s meetings in Ankara, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, visited Istanbul to meet his Turkish counterpart. And Defense Secretary James Mattis met his counterpart along the sidelines of a NATO meeting in Brussels this week.

But European diplomats and experts who spoke to Foreign Policy say the new air of cooperation may not be sustainable in light of the underlying fault lines in the relationship. In addition to the Kurdish dispute, American officials have bristled at Erdogan’s tilt toward authoritarianism; Turkey has retaliated against local employees at U.S. diplomatic facilities; there is rising anti-American and anti-NATO sentiment in the country; and Turkey plans to buy advanced air defense batteries from Russia in a deliberate snub to its NATO allies.

“The meeting was a success, but there was no hard deliverable, and the very hard policy problems that the two countries still face are all still out there,” said Aaron Stein, an expert on Turkey at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. “It is really easy to talk about top-line, big-picture things but a lot harder to implement some of things floated after this meeting.”

“I see this as a Band-Aid, not a long-term solution,” said Amanda Sloat, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Southern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean in the Barack Obama administration.

Those tensions aren’t likely to ease anytime soon, especially since Turkey is headed into election season. Erdogan and other politicians can score easy political points by stoking anti-American and anti-European rhetoric. Recent polls by the Pew Research Center found that only 18 percent of Turks view the United States favorably. And though Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952, only 23 percent of Turks have favorable views of the alliance.

“The anti-American prong of Turkish domestic politics is, well, good politics,” Stein said.

Continued missteps in U.S. diplomacy aren’t helping.

The Trump administration fired off a slew of contradictory and mixed messages in the run-up to its meetings with Turkish counterparts, according to Sloat. That included Trump promising Erdogan he would stop arming the Kurdish militant group YPG, much to the chagrin of the U.S. Defense Department, which has no plans to cut support for its Kurdish partners.

Tillerson also reportedly refused to use an American translator during his lengthy closed-door conversation with Erdogan and Cavusoglu, opting instead to have Cavusoglu translate for him. The decision shocked former U.S. officials and some current State Department officials, who said professional American translators are key to ensuring each word and emphasis gets properly translated to avoid miscommunication.

In this case, “the risk of something being mistranslated is a lot higher,” said Julie Smith of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank. That’s particularly risky because of how hypersensitive the U.S.-Turkey relationship is now. “You don’t want to roll the dice on something like this,” she said.

A State Department spokesperson refused to confirm whether Tillerson declined to use an American translator or, if so, why. Tillerson and Erdogan “engaged in a productive and open conversation about a mutually beneficial way forward in the U.S.-Turkey relationship,” the spokesperson said.

As in many other high-profile crises, Washington also has no U.S. ambassador to Turkey. Trump moved John Bass, a veteran career diplomat, from his post as ambassador in Ankara to be ambassador in Afghanistan last year and has yet to name a replacement. Experts and officials say it will be harder for Washington and Ankara to mend fences without one.

“Right now we’re in a ‘muddle-through’ phase,” Sloat said of U.S.-Turkey relations, “with relations likely to remain difficult in advance of Turkish elections.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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