Did Turkey deliberately frustrate US officials?
Turkish airstrikes targeting PKK hideouts in Syria and Iraq last week were a calculated step to delay or disrupt U.S. plans to work with the PKK's Syrian armed wing, the People's Protection Units, (YPG), in the upcoming Raqqa operation, Ragip Soylu reports in Daily Sabah's article headlined Did Turkey deliberately frustrate US officials? Ankara wanted to send a clear message to Washington before President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's planned visit this month that this time the Americans wouldn't be able to sugarcoat intentions that are at odds with Ankara and this time Turkey would react and not be a bystander. Why now?
First, while the U.S. had promised the YPG would only be used in the isolation phase of the Raqqa operation, the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced that they already created a governing council for the city. This goes against everything said by American officials that had told Ankara until very recently "everything was still on the table, that the White House hadn't made up its mind." And even if they decided to work with the YPG in Raqqa, the coalition would handle this operation diligently due to the city's Arab-Sunni majority character and find an alternative way to run the city.
Instead, Ankara realized that Raqqa was about to become another Manbij, a town controlled by PKK intermediaries, not by locals or Arab representatives. Turkish sources say U.S. officials now behave as if President Barack Obama didn't promise Turkey that the YPG would pull out of Manbij after its liberation. Obama failed to uphold his promises so many times that Ankara stopped counting.
Secondly, Turkish officials seem convinced that Obama appointed officials in the U.S. Central Command or the Pentagon and the State Department still run the show in Syria.
Ankara is well aware that domestic politics is consuming the Trump administration, and people like Brett McGurk, the U.S. Special Envoy to the anti-Daesh coalition, CENTCOM commander Gen. Votel and coalition forces commander Gen. Townsend are moving U.S. soldiers and heavy equipment in Syria for a fait accompli in contrast to Turkish concerns. CENTCOM already laid the groundwork for the Raqqa operation, and they have no willingness whatsoever to change their military plans.
Before the airstrikes, Turkey tried to do its best to slow down Pentagon plans. There was a consensus in Washington that the U.S. would begin its much-anticipated Raqqa operation following the referendum on constitutional changes in Turkey. This is why President Erdoğan sent Defense Minister Fikri Işık to Washington a couple of days before the vote to press the Pentagon and present a new proposal for the operation that excludes the YPG.
This attempt to provide more time for Ankara until Erdoğan meets Trump face-to-face didn't appear to bear results. Finally, Turkey decided to do something blunt.
Where will we go from here? American officials are not likely to change their course. The Pentagon and the State Department, particularly military leaders, are very tense. I assume Ankara has forecast its anger.
But Erdoğan, of course, will try his best, anyway. His meetings in Washington on May 16-17 will reveal the trajectory of Turkish-American relations. We don't know what Erdoğan would say differently to convince Trump and his administration, and we don't know whether Trump would come up with a compromise that can reasonably alleviate Turkish concerns. The only thing we know about the Erdoğan-Trump meeting is that both individuals are shrewd businessmen. They will court, they will play, and eventually they will, more or less, reach an understanding. In this game it seems like Erdoğan has only one ally: His own craftsmanship.