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Diplomats Working to Ease US-Turkey Tensions

FILE - A U.S. flag flies at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, Feb. 2, 2013.

A high-level U.S. delegation led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jonathan Cohen met Wednesday with senior Turkish diplomats to resolve bilateral tensions.

A diplomatic crisis erupted earlier this month with the arrest of local U.S. consulate employee Metin Topuz on terrorism charges, triggering tit for tat sanctions on the issuance of visas.

"I believe this problem will be resolved soon," Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Wednesday in a television interview.

In an apparent gesture to ease talks before the U.S. delegation's visit to Istanbul, Turkish authorities released Topuz's wife and son from custody, although they still face charges.

Resolving bilateral tensions could prove key to U.S. President Donald Trump's announcement to challenge Turkey's neighbor Iran.

"Assuming he [Trump] is committed to combating Iran's influence in the region, he needs a new wingman," said political consultant Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners, referring to Turkey.

Yesilada added that Trump's current new ally, the Syrian Kurds, "are too lightweight to [do] the job, so Turkey comes to mind." But he said Turkey is "Iran's new best friend and America's worst enemy. There is obviously [a] current visa ban and [the] arrest of consular employees as well."

FILE - Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) run across a street in Raqqa, Syria, July 3, 2017.
FILE - Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) run across a street in Raqqa, Syria, July 3, 2017.

Washington's support of the Syrian Kurdish militia the YPG in its fight against the Islamic State has infuriated Ankara. The YPG was part of efforts to capture Raqqa, the jihadists self-declared capital in Syria. But Ankara accuses the YPG of being linked to the PKK that is fighting the Turkish State and is designated by Washington and the European Union as a terrorist organization.

The Turkish government has accused the YPG of seeking to create an independent state on its border, which it fears could lead to similar demands from its own restive Kurdish population.

Common ground

Analysts say Turkey and Iran have found common ground over thwarting Kurdish independence and share lucrative trading interests.

This month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went to Tehran to coordinate efforts against Iraqi Kurdish secession.

"It seems there is a deal in place, although the Iranian foreign policy spokesman denied it, but news from the ground the Iranian Revolutionary Guard closed two of the three border gates with Iraqi Kurdistan and they also closed their airspace,” notes former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who opened Turkey’s consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan.

FILE - Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the members of his ruling party in Ankara, Turkey, Oct. 13, 2017.
FILE - Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the members of his ruling party in Ankara, Turkey, Oct. 13, 2017.

But Ankara's long term strategic interests may well coincide with Washington's. While Turkey and Iran have a common position toward Kurdistan, Djamchid Assadi, an Iran expert at France's Burgundy Business School, said politically, there are regional tensions they cannot solve.

He said "once they have solved the problem over Kurdistan, then problems which appear secondary will again come to the fore, like Syria."

Until recently, Erdogan was equally vocal with Washington in expressing concern over what he called "Persian expansionism."

Iran and Turkey are historically regional rivals. Ankara strongly supported rebels fighting the Tehran-backed Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. And until recently, Erdogan frequently accused Baghdad of pursuing a sectarian agenda against Iraqi Sunnis at Tehran's behest.

Foreign policy shifts

But observers say Turkish domestic politics is increasingly dictating its foreign policy. Erdogan is facing re-election by 2019 in what is expected to be a close vote. Cracking down on Kurdish independence aspirations plays well with Turkish nationalists, a key Erdogan voting constituency.

Wednesday he renewed his attack on the Iraqi Kurdish leadership, accusing them of acting "hysterically" and warning they will be "held to account. "Monday, Turkish forces carried out a cross border raid against PKK bases in Iraq for the first time since 2008.

Erdogan also warned Wednesday Syrian Kurdish forces could face attack. "When the time comes, one night we will come to you suddenly and will do what we have to.Have we done it in Idlib? We have. "Earlier this month, Turkish forces entered the Syrian Idlib region as part of a deal with Moscow and Tehran to create a de-escalation zone.

Former Turkish diplomat Selcen suggests there will be no change in Turkish foreign policy toward the Kurds until presidential elections. But analysts warn the price of that policy could be high for both Ankara and Washington.

"We [Turkey] could capitalize on Trump's desire to punish Iran to bargain a more pro-Turkey policy in Syria and to expand our sphere of influence in the Middle East geography," claimed analyst Yesilada. "What we risk is greater Iranian influence that will eventually exclude us [Turkey] from our hinterland."