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Did Tillerson Save US-Turkey Ties?

If nothing else, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Ankara last week staved off a looming crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations and averted, at least for now, the risk of the two countries coming into conflict in northern Syria. After what he previously said would be a “make or break” visit, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that the two countries would now “normalize” ties. The mechanism for doing so, he explained, will be series of working groups beginning in March to address outstanding bilateral issues such as Syria.

Yet one question still surrounds this otherwise positive development: what exactly prompted the new tone? Following a three and a half hour meeting where no translator was present, nothing in the statements made by either side suggested a substantive breakthrough. Proposals for joint U.S. and Turkish military patrols in the contested territory of Manbij fall well short of previous Turkish demands, while the possibility of finding Kurdish leadership for the region that would be more acceptable to Ankara appears remote. This leaves several, potentially overlapping possibilities: 1) Tillerson privately offered concrete concessions to Turkey that have not been reported, 2) Ankara, facing increasing pressure in Syria from Russia, Iran and the Assad regime decided it was not the time to risk a crisis with the United States, or 3) bilateral differences remain, but some combination of optimism and miscommunication enabled both sides to overlook them.

Any of these possibilities would set the stage for further trouble down the road. If Ankara concludes that its belligerent rhetoric over recent weeks has secured U.S. concessions, it will be tempted to adopt the same approach moving forward. Alternatively, if Ankara backed down on account of ongoing tensions with Iran and Russia, it will be tempted to try to accommodate them going forward in anticipation of future crises with Washington. And needless to say, if Washington and Ankara emerged from last week’s meeting with different understandings of what they had actually agreed to, the potential for anger and disillusionment when they try to work out the details in March remains.

On the other hand, with Erdogan still talking about giving America an “Ottoman slap” in the days before Tillerson arrived, any rhetorical thaw that did not result from complete U.S. capitulation is a welcome first step. If, amidst any other potential explanations, this reflects a pragmatic awareness in both Washington and Ankara of the need to maintain a functional relationship, that makes it more likely that future crises can be resolved as well.

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