Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS (DAESH) Brent McGurk's visit to Kobani and the pictures of it published in the press will be a significant psychological turning point in U.S.-Turkish relations.
In the last few weeks in this column I have written multiple articles on the possible spoiler impact of U.S. relation with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) to U.S.-Turkish relations. In a period when the PKK threat to Turkey's national security increased significantly, the cordial relations between the U.S. and PYD significantly challenges the future of Turkish-U.S. relations. It is not necessary to repeat why Ankara considers armed groups affiliated with the PKK in northern Syria a threat to Turkey's national security. The risk of the smuggling of U.S.-supplied weapons from Syria to Turkey in order to be used against Turkish security forces and citizens, the danger of passages of U.S.-trained and armed groups from northern Syria to Turkey and the threat stemming from the possible exchange of knowhow from the groups in northern Syria to PKK were written, expressed and argued since the Kobani crises. However, despite these sensitivities from Ankara, the U.S. administration has continued its support for the PYD's armed People's Protection Units (YPG), which have gradually heightened the tension between the two countries. Of course, we do not know the details of private meetings between high-level officials and political leaders, but regarding the issue, it is not hard to guess that a significant chunk of these meetings were allocated to this problem.
Leaving aside political and strategic risks and the threat to U.S.-Turkish bilateral relations, the YPG issue is fast becoming one of the major accidents in the field of public opinion. U.S.-Turkish relations suffered from several of these crises before, and each one of them left deep marks in the collective memory and perception of the people. For instance, one of these incidents during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the "hood incident," resulted in serious damage to mutual trust between two countries. Although it has been almost 13 years since the hood incident, references to this incident continue in popular culture. The hood incident took place on July 4 and the explanation from the U.S. administration during involved the absence of high-level administration officials in Washington due to the Independence Day holiday. Because of that, both the explanation and crisis control delayed the process. Of course it would be important to remember that the incident took place after Parliament's refusal to allow U.S. troops to launch operations from Turkey.
Since then, relations experienced different up and downs and tensions in diplomatic relations were contained in one way or another. Currently, due to the disagreement over the PYD and Syria, relations have been experiencing another significant difficulty, and at this critical juncture, the pictures of McGurk with former PKK members deepened existing disappointment in Ankara regarding U.S. actions in northern Syria, which is in a process of turning into another major crisis of confidence. Unlike the hood incident, this time, there was a picture shared on social media that shows an extremely warm atmosphere between the special envoy and YPG members. A picture is sometimes worth a thousand words, as they say, and this is a picture that deserves this status. It will be one of "the pictures" and it will be reproduced for years to show a low point in relations.
Secondly, this visit took place in a period when there are clashes between Turkish security forces and PKK members in which dozens of Turkish soldiers have died as a result of PKK attacks and ambushes. Thirdly, there were no publicly stated explanations from Washington about the incident. Rather, a State Department spokesman reiterated that the PYD is a partner of the U.S. Fourthly, unlike the hood incident, there were no major demonstrations or protest against the U.S. after this incident, and although it may be considered a good thing, it also shows extremely low expectations from the Turkish public regarding US policies. The incident has deepened disappointment but it did not surprise many, which shows that, in terms of public diplomacy, U.S.-Turkish relations are not in their best shape.
About the author
Kılıç Buğra Kanat is Research Director at SETA Foundation at Washington, D.C. He is an assistant professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Erie.