Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with visiting U.S Senator Lindsey Graham in Ankara Friday, in the latest effort to defuse bilateral tensions over Syria.
Turkish forces remain massed on the northeast Syrian border, poised to launch an offensive against the YPG Kurdish militia, a critical American ally in the war against Islamic State. Ankara deems the YPG terrorists linked to an insurgency inside Turkey.
Differences over Syria saw Erdogan shun U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton earlier this month when he visited Ankara. Graham met not only with Erdogan but withTurkey’s defense and foreign ministers and intelligence chief.
“At our meeting, w/ U.S. Senator @LindseyGrahamSC discussed recent developments in #Syria and #Turkey -#US bilateral relations,” tweeted Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Ahead of his visit, Graham appeared to reach out to Ankara by addressing key Turkish concerns.
“I have long contended that there are elements among the Syrian Kurds that represent a legitimate national security threat to Turkey. Turkey’s concern regarding YPG elements must be addressed in a real way to ensure that Turkey’s borders are secure and are protected from any threats,” wrote Graham.
The meeting marks the senator’s second with Erdogan in six months. Graham is a member of three powerful Senate committees: Foreign Relations, Budget, and Appropriations. Analysts suggest the senator’s relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump explains Ankara’s warm reception.
“He is very close to Donald Trump, he is a man of confidence to Trump,” said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. “He is more politician than John Bolton who is considered more a diplomat. So Graham’s visit is a higher level of meeting in Ankara’s eyes, so it’s welcomed in Ankara. I am sure Trump has sent him.” Bagci added.
Analysts point out Erdogan sees Trump as his only trusted interlocutor, blaming U.S. officials for the current bilateral tensions. Erdogan welcomed Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria; however, the Turkish president condemned what he said were attempts by senior U.S. officials to delay the withdrawal and link it to conditions including guaranteeing YPG security.
Graham has criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, claiming it was premature in the war against Islamic State. The senator’s talks in Ankara reportedly focused on America’s Syria withdrawal and Ankara’s threatened military operation in Syria.
“We won’t stop until we drain the terrorist swamp next door (referring to Syria). We won’t rest until justice is served,” presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun wrote on Twitter Friday. “Terrorists have killed more than 2,000 innocent people in Turkey since 2015. Many of those attacks were planned in northern Syria. The Turkish people suffered more than their fair share,” Altun added.
Analysts suggest Ankara is not looking for a confrontation with Graham. “I expect Turkey will offer some concessions to the United States,” said Bagci, “because even though Turkey has the military capability to intervene in Syria and control the area, without American green light, it would be very difficult for Turkey.”
Ankara is seeking common ground with Trump’s proposal to create a buffer zone in Syria between the Kurdish militia and the Turkish border.
Erdogan welcomed the proposal but maintains that Turkish forces will create the 30-kilometer deep zone into Syria. The YPG leadership is strongly opposed, warning it would resist.
“If Turkish forces created the 30-kilometer buffer zone, the YPG forces would have nowhere to go; there is only desert beyond,” said Aydin Selcen, a former senior Turkish diplomat. “The alternative is for them to disarm.”
Turkish pro-government media are filled with reports of American conspiracies. “Their steps with respect to forming a 32-kilometer safe zone on our Syria border is a new distraction trick,” wrote columnist Tamer Korkmaz in Turkey’s Yeni Safak newspaper, Friday. “They want to delay Turkey’s possible military operation, and if possible, prevent it. Would they accept the kind of buffer zone Turkey wants?” he continued.
Since Trump has proposed the Syrian buffer zone, no details have been provided by Washington on how it will be created or enforced. Graham reportedly discussed the zone during his talks in Ankara.
Analysts warn Ankara could also face pushback from Arab countries in the region if it acted unilaterally.
“Turkey ultimately will not be allowed to control this area,” said Bagci. “Some Arab countries will consider this an occupation of Arab lands. So that Turkey would be viewed as an aggressive revisionist state, from a historical perspective, as this is all formally land belonging to the Ottoman empire. Turkey has to convince the world that Turkey is protecting the Kurds from the Syrian Assad regime, rather than just fighting terrorism,” he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia too has voiced concern about a Turkish incursion, saying Syria has to approve of it. Erdogan is due to visit Moscow next week to meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. “Turkey has a weak hand, with Russia, America and Damascus opposed to any Syrian military operation,” said Bagci.