WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump urged Turkey on Wednesday to curtail its military operation in Syria and warned it not to bring U.S. and Turkish forces into conflict, but a Turkish source said a White House readout did not accurately reflect the conversation.
Turkey’s air and ground operation in Syria’s Afrin region, now in its fifth day, targets U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG fighters, which Ankara sees as allies of Kurdish insurgents who have fought in southeastern Turkey for decades.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he would extend the operation to Manbij, a separate Kurdish-held enclave some 100 km (60 miles) east of Afrin, possibly putting U.S. forces there at risk and threatening U.S. plans to stabilize a swath of Syria.
Speaking with Erdogan by telephone, Trump became the latest U.S. official to try to rein in the offensive and to pointedly flag the risk of the two allies’ forces coming into conflict.
“He urged Turkey to deescalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties,” a White House statement said. “He urged Turkey to exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.”
The United States has around 2,000 troops in Syria.
However, a Turkish source said the White House statement did not accurately reflect the content of their phone call.
“President Trump did not share any ‘concerns about escalating violence’ with regard to the ongoing military operation in Afrin,” the source said, referring to one comment in the White House summary of their conversation.
“The two leaders’ discussion of Operation Olive Branch was limited to an exchange of views,” the source said.
Trump said in response to Erdogan’s call on the United States to end the delivery of weapons to the YPG that the United States no longer supplied the group with weapons and pledged not to resume the weapons delivery in the future, the source said.
The offensive has opened a new front in Syria’s multi-sided, seven-year-old civil war and complicated U.S. efforts in Syria.
The United States hopes to use the YPG’s control of the area to give it the diplomatic muscle it needs to revive U.N.-led talks in Geneva on a deal that would end Syria’s civil war and eventually lead to the ouster of President Bashar Assad.
The United States and Turkey, while themselves allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have diverging interests in Syria, with Washington focused on defeating the Islamic State militant group and Ankara keen to prevent Syria’s Kurds from gaining autonomy and fueling Kurdish insurgents on its soil.
In the short-term, analysts say, the United States has little pressure it can apply on Turkey given the U.S. military’s heavy dependence on a Turkish base to carry out air strikes in Syria against Islamic State.
Its sway is further limited by the United States not having reliable military partners in Syria other than the Kurds, said Gonul Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at Washington’s Middle East Institute think tank.
“The U.S. needs Turkey not to spoil things … until now, Washington has walked a very fine line between working with the Kurdish militia and also preventing a complete breakdown in relations with Ankara,” Tol said.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Trump values his relationship with Erdogan, but conceded that the United States has limited leverage and that the Trump administration was unlikely to commit more troops or covert operators to Syria, even if Turkey made a move from Afrin to Manbij.
“The U.S. has effectively said you can do this operation against Afrin because it is outside my area, but please keep it limited,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Washington-based think tank CSIS. “So it has not felt the need to go beyond the rhetorical means that it has employed.”
Erdogan has looked to bolster ties with Russia and Iran in recent years, in part because of frustration with Washington’s support for the YPG in the fight against Islamic State.
Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgent group, which is deemed a terrorist organization by the United States, the EU and Turkey.
In a clear sign of rapprochement, Ankara is buying an S-400 missile defense system from Russia – unnerving NATO officials, who are already wary of Moscow’s military presence in the Middle East. The S-400 is incompatible with NATO’s systems.
However, analysts say those moves are largely tactical and ultimately Turkey will be open to listening to U.S. concerns about its military operation, given that Ankara needs the European Union for trade and NATO partners for its security.
“I think behind closed doors, he really would not want a complete break in Turkey’s relations with the West,” Tol said.
Max Hoffman, with the Center for American Progress, said the United States still had considerable leverage and could look at imposing sanctions on Turkey in the future, should Turkish forces disregard warnings on Manbij.
Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Alistair Bell and Paul Tait
Turkey’s foray into Somalia is a huge success, but there are risks
THE CONVERSATION –Turkey’s presence in Somalia certainly embodies one of the most interesting regional geopolitical developments in the past decade. It also represents one of the most misunderstood and confusing. Why did Turkey choose Somalia? And, after its initial humanitarian intervention in 2011, what internal and external forces have shaped and expanded that involvement? Furthermore, what explains Turkey’s reported triumphs?
Some have pointed to a shared history and a common Sunni Muslim heritage. This is questionable, at best, and alone cannot explain Turkey’s engagement with Somalia – let alone the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Others have noted Turkey’s economic clout and its status as a mid-sized country interested in trade rather than extracting resources.
Genuine humanitarian concerns have also, at least initially, driven Turkey’s engagement as well as the prospect of economic gain. Scholar Federico Donelli notes its approach to Somalia
“has made Turkey a regional actor different from the traditional western powers, as well as from the emerging non-western ones.”
Turkey’s approach in Somalia has been largely welcomed inside and outside the African nation. However, a cautionary note is required. Allegations of corruption and bribery have surfaced. Turkey’s recent opening of a military training base in Mogadishu to train the Somali National Army has also raised eyebrows across the wider Horn of Africa region.
Keys to success
Ankara has an understandable and deep seated desire for international recognition as an emerging power and G20 member state. Its status in Somalia is part humanitarian and part financial, but is at its heart about influence and prestige.
Turkish money and aid – delivered directly to key stakeholders in the Somali Federal Government – ingratiated Turkey with local power brokers and provided Ankara with access and power in Mogadishu. What soon followed is Turkish control and management of Somalia’s most lucrative assets, the airport and seaport.
Parallel to these were unilateral rebuilding efforts, offers of scholarships, renovations of hospitals, and the hosting of international conferences about Somalia. These have largely contributed positively to Somalia’s development and yielded the international acclaim and diplomatic clout craved by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his coterie.
For some parties inside and outside Somalia, Turkey is now viewed as indispensable to Somalia. The keys to Turkey’s reported success in Somalia – where so many other established powers have failed before – may revolve around four critical factors.
The first is approach. Most interventions in Somalia have been multilateral affairs by international and regional actors, such as the UN. Turkey’s approach, in contrast, has been largely unilateral and highly coordinated by the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency. In this way, the efforts of business, government and humanitarian staff either do not overlap or do so effectively.
Second is novelty. Turkey’s Ottoman past and Muslim identity have been raised as major variables driving Turkey’s engagement with Somalia. But these assertions ignore or minimise one of its key strengths as a rising power: its distinct lack of a colonial past that devastated so much of the continent.
This approach is not only novel; it also represents Turkey’s first meaningful engagement with the continent. This contrasts sharply with that of the US, France, Russia and China, among others, which have a colonial or Cold War baggage.
The third factor is risk. Somalia has been the scene of thousands of capacity building and self-help experiments funded by a plethora of international organisations and states. Yet it is precisely where these efforts have failed that Turkey has found its niche.
This required a big appetite for risk. Naturally, as the risks rise the potential for significant rewards does too. The economic rationale for risk among Turkish businesses is particularly high, given experiences in difficult environments such as Iraq and Libya. This has contributed to sensible, if risky actions in Somalia.
Fourth is soft power. Turkey has deployed an array of soft power approaches. These include diplomatic support for Somalia and direct flights on the Turkish national airline from Mogadishu to Istanbul. These pragmatic approaches have also led Turkish businesses to reap major financial rewards and lucrative contracts.
Turkey’s interest has shifted from being primarily humanitarian to one that also takes into account the political and security aspects of the country. Doing so, as stated in the Becoming Global Actor: The Turkish Agenda for the Global South has made the country
“a hybrid non-traditional actor because it combines the traditional political-stability perspective of western powers with the economic-trade perspective of emerging ones.”
It also has broken with the traditional development model for Somalia that has characterised the past three decades.
Turkey’s hybrid approach may yet lead to mission creep and draw the country into Somalia’s infamous clan politics. Its increasing role could also put it on a collision course with other states, regionally and internationally.
However, its actions have arguably improved the situation in Somalia over the past six years. This is because Ankara has actually attempted to assuage rather than solve Somalia’s long-standing problems outright. Investment is largely driven by profits and assistance is targeted, coordinated and based on needs.
These interventions rarely come with the types of strings attached that characterise other efforts seeking to restructure Somalia. This has been welcomed by many Somalis for whom requirements for political reform or the creation of accountability mechanisms ring hollow.
Brendon J. Cannon, Assistant Professor of International Security, Department of Humanities and Social Science, Khalifa University
Somalia: Turkish foundation’s school hosts 500 students
Turkiye Diyanet Foundation (TDV) on Tuesday said the Sheikh Sufi Imam Hatip High School in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, which it restored six years ago, currently hosts 500 students.
According to Turkey’s religious services consultant in Somalia Ahmet Akturk, numerous students were orphans. TDV said 270 of these students are boarders.
”All of the students’ costs are covered by TDV and the foundation will make sure the students continue their university studies,” he added.
Turkey began to set up various projects in Somalia in 2011 when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched an initiative to help the East African country, which was undergoing a famine due to drought.
The initiative later grew to other humanitarian activities and educational projects, according to the statement.
Sheikh Sufi Imam Hatip High School, which has existed in Mogadishu since 1960, stopped functioning in 1991 due to civil war.
According to TDV , a new protocol signed with the Ministry of Education of Somalia in 2012 led to the resumption of educational activities.
Approximately 2,000 students apply to the school every year but only a hundred are accepted due to quota restrictions.
Eleventh grade student Muhammad Hasan said the school was a “great opportunity” for all students there.
“We get a combination of scientific and religious knowledge, we learn in the best way,” Hasan added.
According to Leyla Sherif, another student, the school provides not only education but safety and health services too.
“Our school is one of the best schools in Somalia. We learn both religion and science and my favorite course is Turkish,” Leyla added.
Since 2011, TDV has built centers for the disabled, hospitals, and orphanages in Mogadishu.
Somalia, Turkey ink trade deals to boost bilateral ties
MOGADISHU, Jan. 15 (Xinhua) — Somalia said on Monday that it signed a raft of trade agreements with Turkey aimed at boosting an already thriving economic cooperation between the two countries.
Somali Deputy Prime Minister Mahdi Ahmed Gulaid said he signed a cooperation protocol during the inaugural meeting of a Joint Economic Commission (JEC), noting that Mogadishu was open to foreign investment and ready to boost trade cooperation with all friendly countries.
“The agreements will also open Somali exports to Central Asian markets through the Turkish gateway as well as to contribute to the country’s economic recovery and to generate employment for the Somali youth,” Gulaid said in a statement issued in Mogadishu.
He said the objective of the JEC is to translate the number of memorandums of understanding signed between the two countries into reality with immediate priority being to open Turkish markets for Somali products such as dry lemon, sesame and banana.
The deputy prime minister stressed that revitalizing the Horn of Africa country’s economy was one of the top priorities of the Somali government.
The two countries had previously signed trade agreements in areas such as energy, mines, electricity, higher education, agriculture, and fisheries.
Gulaid said Turkey’s investment in Somalia is more than 100 million U.S. dollars, predicting that the bilateral trade volume could rise to 200 million dollars from about 120 million dollars in 2016.
The two countries resolved to convene regular meetings to follow up on the implementation of the agreements and to bolster the strategic cooperation in the years to come.
“Apart from the historical relations between our countries, Turkey has become a very important ally for the Somali people and we are committed to consolidate these relations for the mutual benefit of our two countries,” Gulaid said.
He said trade ties will also open the gates for the Somali business community to have business-to-business deals with their Turkish counterparts and to participate in Turkish trade fairs.