US-Turkey relations during Tillerson’s honeymoon

Rex Tillerson, a career oilman, was sworn in as the 69th U.S. Secretary of State on Feb.1. President Donald Trump’s search for a secretary of state candidate was extended and contentious, and Tillerson emerged as a serious candidate less than two weeks before Trump actually tabbed him for the position.

The Senate hearings on Tillerson’s candidacy were likewise testy, but he was eventually approved by votes that followed party lines almost exactly. The final Senate confirmation vote saw Tillerson encounter far more opposition than any other secretary of state candidate in U.S. history.

As Tillerson assumed his new job, many question marks concerning the State Department’s role in formulating U.S. foreign policy under the Trump administration had already emerged. President Trump himself has no previous political experince, to say nothing of foreign policy creation, but has a tendency to speak impulsively on whatever issue is at hand. Then there is the friendship that both Trump and Tillerson have with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Around Trump are various advisors, such as Stephen K. Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, whom many observers see as the real foreign policy decision-makers in the Trump administration. This scene had been established even before Trump was inaugurated, so media discussion about what exactly the State Department would busy itself with over the next four years began early.

And now, after one month, the answer to that question has emerged: the State Department will be in the policy background for an undetermined period of time.

In the past month, Tillerson traveled to Bonn, Germany for a G20 meeting and to Mexico for deliberations with the Mexican government, but he maintained an exceptionally low profile for a secretary of state. Media reports indicated that most foreign diplomats who engaged in discussions with Tillerson in Bonn came away with a positive impression, even “relief,” but Tillerson has said very little to the press.

Most of what the public learned came through the State Department’s Twitter account and its main web page. In mid-March, Tillerson will travel to East Asia.

A number of U.S. press reports have pointed out that the ongoing transition from the previous administration is part of the reason for the State Department’s current impotence. Key top level positions are still vacant and Tillerson is working to fill out his team.

Tillerson also had his choice of deputy secretary of state, foreign policy veteran Elliot Abrams, rejected by President Trump, a setback that made Tillerson look somewhat beleaguered. As an anonymous Republican Senator told Politico magazine, “Now everybody knows that he doesn’t have any juice with Trump… he can’t even get his own people in.”

The State Department’s daily press briefings finally restarted this past week, though, which was welcomed by journalists as well as governments abroad. This dramatically increases the amount of information that everyone has access to concerning the State Department’s activities.

And during the Wednesday session, State Department Spokesperson Mark Toner confirmed that the Trump administration did not see the PYD/YPG as connected to the PKK, stating that, “We’re also obviously mindful of Turkey’s concerns with respect to the YPG and we respectfully disagree with them linking the YPG with the PKK.” This attitude continues the Obama administration’s stance.

Subsequently, at this point it looks as though the State Department will not be important in devising or implementing U.S. foreign policy. This may change in the future, but for now the White House and the Pentagon determine policy on issues related to Turkey.

Until now, the Trump era’s most striking development for Turkish-American relations is Secretary Tillerson’s minimal remarks on his interaction with Turkish representatives.

Tillerson met Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu while in Germany but made only limited comments about the conversation. For his part, FM Cavusoglu tweeted brief messages in Turkish and English about his conversation with Secretary Tillerson.

Press reports on the meeting also appeared, but they contained few details and mostly repeated Tillerson’s and Cavusoglu’s truncated statements. Other U.S. officials have traveled to Turkey or held phone conversations with Turkish officials, but the information released to the press concerning those deliberations has been meager.

All of this is despite the fact that an extremely delicate situation was developing in northern Syria as Tillerson and Cavusoglu met. The Turkish-backed Syrian Free Army was already in the final stages of expelling Daesh from Al-Bab, which meant that it would soon be ready to turn its attention to Manbij and/or Raqqa.

But the Trump administration has decided that the Obama administration’s policy of training and arming the PKK’s Syrian arm, the PYD/YPG, will continue.

The PYD/YPG are the dominant element in the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which still controls Manbij. And now Russian soldiers are even sporting SDF patches.

The State Department, as far as outside observers can understand, has been totally sidelined from the issue. Right now, U.S. Central Command’s (CENTCOM) Twitter account, which turns out pictures of the PYD/YPG militants that the U.S. is training and arming, is a more informative source than the State Department when it comes to U.S. policy in Syria and towards Turkey.

Because of the uncertainty still surrounding the Trump administration’s policy towards Turkey, several of Trump’s comments during his first speech to a Congressional joint session provided tantalizing suggestions about where the two countries may be able to find common ground.

For example, Trump strongly reaffirmed U.S. support for NATO, and stated that, “The only long-term solution for these humanitarian disasters, in many cases, is to create the conditions where displaced persons can safely return home and begin the long, long process of rebuilding.”

President Trump’s words immediately evoke Syria. Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield [in northern Syria] has rolled back Daesh from several important population centers, allowing the local residents to return and begin rebuilding their lives with Turkish aid and security.

Hopefully, Turkey’s actions in Syria were an example that President Trump had in mind while enunciating those words.

If that is the case, the situation near Manbij becomes even more vital. If Trump truly views the construction of peace as important, will he recognize Turkey’s vital and positive influence in northern Syria?

Can Trump be convinced to forego the PYD/YPG presence on the Euphrates’s west bank without creating more unnecessary tension with Ankara? Answers to these questions should emerge in the immediate future.

* Opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect The Daily Turkish’s editorial policy