WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan again threatened the US over the Syrian city of Manbij, as he was cited as saying on Wednesday that he was prepared to attack Manbij “to eliminate terrorists,” if the US was “unwilling to do so.”
However, Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian and now a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in an interview with Kurdistan 24, dismissed the harsh language as “empty threats.”
The former Turkish lawmaker suggested that Erdogan’s complaint—relayed to the press by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu—had two audiences.
One was Washington. The other was a domestic audience, and the complaint was meant “to fuel nationalism at home” and “divert attention” away from Turkey’s economic crisis—precipitated in significant part, after Erdogan reneged on an understanding with US President Donald Trump to free the American pastor, Andrew Brunson.
When Brunson was released to house arrest in July—but not freed—Trump came down hard on Turkey, and last week, Erdogan caved.
On October 12, a Turkish court reduced the charges against Brunson, who was said, implausibly, to have joined in an attempted Islamic coup against Erdogan’s government.
Released on the basis of time served, Brunson left the country, before Turkish prosecutors could appeal his reduced sentence.
The following day, Trump warmly welcomed Brunson to the White House.
Outstanding issues, however, remain between Washington and Ankara, and the US has not yet lifted its sanctions. Indeed, one can well imagine that Erdogan’s duplicity has left significant bitterness and mistrust of Turkey at senior levels of the Trump administration.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Ankara, primarily to discuss the death of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, inside Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate.
Asked afterwards whether the US would lift the sanctions on Turkey, Pompeo replied, “We’ll have a decision about that shortly,” adding “I need to talk to the President about that.”
Pompeo also noted other issues that still divide the US and Turkey. They include the US demand that Turkey cease importing Iranian oil, as of early November, as well as the other US citizens and local State Department staff whom Ankara continues to detain on what Washington regards as charges as fraudulent as those leveled against Brunson.
Thus, as Erdemir suggested to Kurdistan 24, another important reason for Erdogan’s threat over Manbij is that he “is trying to use the crisis” for “leverage in bilateral relations.”
“US-Turkish relations are going through a thawing period,” Erdemir explained, and “I do not expect Erdogan to risk the current process by unilateral action in Manbij.”
Paul Davis, a former Pentagon analyst and now a Senior Fellow at Soran University, basically agreed, telling Kurdistan 24, “If Erdogan is a rational actor, he knows that he has pushed as far as he can go, and he won’t do anything further.”
However, as Erdemir noted, the situation could change in the future. “You never know,” he said. “Erdogan might need a major distraction” and then he might order such a military operation—but not now.
Erdemir highlighted the Iranian sanctions as a major issue for the US and Turkey. Turkey gets a large percentage of its oil from Iran. The US has given countries until November 4 to end such imports, or they will become subject to secondary US sanctions. However, Washington is prepared to grant waivers to those that show good faith by reducing Iranian oil imports.
But “there is still no understanding,” Erdemir said, between Ankara and Washington as to how much Turkey should cut its imports and whether it will receive a waiver.
This is an immediate issue, he explained, with an imminent deadline, and for that reason it is much bigger than Manbij. Manbij may be “going slowly,” but “there will be negotiations.”
Erdogan’s policy toward the US has its “ups and downs,” Erdemir concluded, and it has “major U-turns.” But he “controls over 90% of the Turkish media,” and “he can literally control the messaging going to every single home in Turkey.”
It “gives him carte blanche.” He can reverse what he said the day before. “He doesn’t need to be coherent.”
Erdemir suggested that US-Turkish relations remain “open-ended.” Major issues still divide the two countries, and it remains to be seen whether there will again be “major U-turns or whether Erdogan will take the risk” of defying Turkey’s “largest NATO partner.”
(Interview conducted in Washington DC by Kawa Khidhir)