Spotlight: Ankara-Washington ties tested amid Turkish threat of action against Kurdish militia

Source: Xinhua| 2019-09-28 23:28:17|Editor: yan
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ISTANBUL, Sept. 28 (Xinhua) -- Turkish-U.S. ties face yet another challenge as Turkey signaled it is serious about a cross-border military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in Syria unless its safe zone demands are met, while analysts believe there is still room for a compromise.

Ankara's deadline for launching the operation if its demands are not met by the end of this month is still valid, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in mid week.

The Turkish leader had warned earlier that Ankara would act on its own to eliminate the Kurdish militia if no consensus is reached with Washington regarding the safe zone.

Ankara demands that the safe zone, which it says should be under its full control, go as deep as around 30 km into the territory under the militia control along its border.

Washington, however, proposed a two-tiered, 5-14-km-deep zone along the border, with the Kurdish militia's heavy weapons to be pulled further back.

Reportedly, the Kurdish militia known as the People's Protection Units (YPG) would have no presence in the first 5 km of the safe zone.

However, Turkey demands the YPG have no presence in a 30-km-deep safe zone and that it hand over heavy weapons to the U.S.

A Turkish offensive against the YPG could have a major impact on the course of the Turkish-U.S. ties, but it is probable that Washington would give the green light to a limited cross-border operation by the Turkish military, Hasan Koni, an international relations analyst, told Xinhua.

Such an operation would help Erdogan convince his supporters at home that Turkey gets what it wanted, said Koni, who teaches at Istanbul Kultur University.

Ties between the two NATO allies have long been strained due largely to U.S. military support to the YPG, which Ankara sees as a terror group, and Turkey's purchase of Russian S-400 air defense missiles.

Earlier this month, Ankara criticized Washington's steps regarding the safe zone as being cosmetic, accusing its ally of stalling on the project and actually planning a buffer zone to protect the YPG.

"Turkey is no country to be stalled," Erdogan told reporters before leaving the U.S. for Turkey on Wednesday after attending the UN General Assembly.

Noting Turkish jets had quite recently flew over the safe zone, he said, "the flights of our jets are not for nothing. This is no simple flight either."

Trying to deter a Turkish move against the YPG, Washington has repeatedly said it would protect the militia, which the U.S. used as a ground force against the Islamic State, in case of an attack.

Washington has several thousand troops and reportedly more than two dozens of military bases on the YPG-controlled territory.

"What's going on is a chicken game. We will see who will back out at the last minute," stated Koni. "At the moment, it's hard to say how the Turkish-U.S. ties could evolve."

The flight of the Turkish jets as well as several other joint ground and helicopter patrols by Turkish and U.S. military over the YPG-held territory was recently conducted under a safe zone deal concluded by Ankara and Washington last month.

Koni does not think a Turkish operation is much likely given the U.S. military presence on YPG-held territory, though he does not rule out such a possibility altogether, because the Turkish leadership is known for its tendency to act on feelings rather than rationally when it comes to foreign policy.

Turkey has long deployed a large number of troops and armored vehicles along the border with the YPG-held territory in northeastern Syria.

Turkey would carry out the cross-border operation unless its demands are met, said Haldun Yalcinkaya, an international relations analyst at the TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara.

Ankara hopes to resettle in the safe zone up to two million of the more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees being sheltered on its land.

Turkey is not happy with the current state of affairs regarding the safe zone, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Friday in New York.

If no consensus is achieved with the U.S., then Turkey will act on its own to get rid of the YPG, he added, arguing it cannot be possible to resettle the Syrian refugees in the safe zone as long as the YPG is there.

Yalcinkaya, who also feels Washington may allow Ankara to conduct a limited operation into the YPG-held territory, underlined that it would not be all that rational to launch an operation without a deal with the U.S.

Turkish troops would risk otherwise being targeted, which could lead to undesirable consequences on the ground, he stated, noting, however, that he does not expect the U.S. troops to fire on the Turkish troops as it would be a violation of the rules of the NATO alliance.

Before leaving for the UN General Assembly, Erdogan said he would discuss with U.S. President Donald Trump about Washington's military support to the YPG and buying Patriot air defense system from the U.S.

However, Erdogan had only occasion to have a short talk with Trump on the phone other than coming together with him at a reception for a family photo during his stay in New York in the past week.

It may be Trump's way of showing that Washington is not willing to accept Ankara's safe zone demands, said Koni.

Yet another explanation of Trump's unavailability for a meeting with Erdogan may be that the Washington establishment may have talked the U.S. president out of having a talk with Erdogan as the establishment fears what Trump may say could harm the U.S. policy, argued Koni.

"Trump is just a businessman who knows nothing about strategy or foreign policy."

During his stay in New York, Erdogan met with Lindsey Graham, a U.S. Republican senator close to Trump.

"We're trying to get them (Turkey) back in the F-35 program," Graham said following the meeting last Sunday.

Washington removed Ankara from the joint production program of the fifth-generation F-35 fighter jet following the arrival in Turkey of the first batch of the S-400 missiles in July.

The U.S. has recently offered Turkey an economic package aimed at boosting bilateral trade, while Erdogan and Graham also discussed a possible free trade agreement between the two countries.

"The economic package offered is a carrot to talk Ankara out of a cross-border operation," Koni remarked.

The U.S. wants economic ties rather than Syria to be central to bilateral relations, observed Yalcinkaya.

"In this way, it is offering a tool kit for Turkey to cope with its economic problems," he said, adding it is hard to say whether Ankara would accept the American offer or not.

The debt-stricken Turkish economy has been grappling with high inflation and unemployment.

Yalcinkaya feels that Washington may not withdraw the economic package even if Turkey launches a cross-border operation, "because Turkish-U.S. ties have so much been compartmentalized in recent years."

"Turkey is a very important ally, not just when it comes to Syria but for the whole region," added Graham.