Turkey’s Syria Policy and the Elections

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 7 June 2018

Turkish soldiers and their rebel dependencies in Efrin, 18 March 2018 // AFP

On June 24, for the first time in 15 years, there seems a possibility, however faint, that elections in Turkey will end in defeat for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

It is an uphill battle, not least because of the ongoing state of emergency after the 2016 attempted coup, which has exacerbated the systemic biases against Erdoğan’s political opponents. But the Turkish opposition has managed to overcome its own fractiousness and has a strategic game-plan that makes sense. One card Erdoğan still has to play is foreign policy, and there are signs in Syria and Iraq of advantageous news to come.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met his U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo on Monday. The main item on the agenda was Manbij, a town in northern Syria held by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish force Turkey says is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey for more than 30 years.

The United States promised Turkey two years ago that Manbij would be cleared of YPG/PKK elements and left to local rule. The failure to fulfil that promise has been a running sore in U.S.-Turkish relations, a particularly intense microcosm of the broader issue arising from the United States deputising the YPG as its ground force in Syria for the war against Islamic State (ISIS).

In late May, a “roadmap” for Manbij was created, its terms remaining deliberately vague, and the joint statement after the Çavuşoğlu-Pompeo meeting reaffirmed commitment to it. For the Turkish government, a resolution of Manbij that removes YPG/PKK control would not only be a step in the right direction on a serious security problem, it would be a political step in the right direction with the Americans. As Çavuşoğlu said the day before he met Pompeo, such an outcome “may be a turning point for bilateral relations”.

This comes at a moment of tension not seen since the U.S. arms embargo against Turkey for the 1974 invasion of Cyprus.

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