CIA chief visits Turkey to discuss Kurds, Gulen, and ISIS

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A Kurdish PKK fighter (L), Turkey's military at funeral of soldiers (R). File photo

ARA News

The CIA head Mike Pompeo is visiting Turkey on Thursday to discuss the US-led coalition support to the Syrian Kurds, and the Fethullah Gulen movement that Turkey accuses of orchestrating the failed military coup in the summer of 2016.

Pompeo’s visit was reportedly decided during a 45-minute telephone conversation between US President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan late on Tuesday, where both discussed their shared commitment to ‘combatting terrorism in all its forms’, and in which Trump welcomed Turkey’s contributions to the anti-ISIS campaign.

According to the pro-Turkish government media, the two officials discussed a plan to jointly take Raqqa and al-Bab, two major Syrian cities currently held by ISIS. However, American officials did not yet confirm Pompeo’s visit to Ankara.

“I would presume that the visit will discuss border security, the fight against Islamic State, and be dominated by Gulen and the YPG,” Aaron Stein, a senior resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, told ARA News on Wednesday.

Turkey has been lobbying in Washington to stop the US support to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers to be affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Ankara hopes that the new Trump administration will change its policy towards the Syrian Kurds.

However, US officials and the Pentagon continued to operate with the SDF and the YPG, seeing them as the most effective forces against ISIS.

During his nomination hearing in January, Rex Tillerson, the President’s pick for a Secretary of State, called the Syrian Kurds the greatest ally to the US.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration ditched a plan of the former Obama administration to directly arm the Kurds to take Raqqa, preferring to form its own plan to deal with ISIS.

The Pentagon has been pushing the administration to work with the Syrian Kurdish YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who have proven their battle experience against ISIS in Manbij, Tel Abyad, Shadadi and other cities, and have recruited many Arabs to fight ISIS.

In the meantime, the US-led coalition continued to provide support to the SDF forces that are encircling Raqqa.

Nicholas Heras, a Mideast researcher at the Centre for a New American Security, told ARA News that it’s unlikely that the US will end its support for the Kurdish-led SDF forces.

“The SDF is still the only viable vehicle to capture Raqqa,” he said. “The fundamentals of the counter-ISIS campaign in Syria have not changed,” he added.

Amberin Zaman, Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, agreed with this analysis. “But in the short term I think the US will stick with plans to take Raqqa with the SDF. It’s a tested and trusted ally and much has already been invested in that relationship,” Zaman told ARA News.

“Whether it evolves into a political one is another matter though and that remains a very big question mark,” she concluded.

Moreover, analysts say that the CIA chief’s visit to Ankara will not only focus on the campaign to take Raqqa and al-Bab, but also on Idlib where infighting is taking place between Islamist rebels.

“Pompeo’s visit to Ankara will not just be about the counter-ISIS campaign. It will also be about the broader diplomatic process toward a ceasefire in Syria, and the next steps after that,” Heras told ARA News.

“Expect the fate of the CIA-led program to provide military support to select Syrian armed opposition groups to be discussed as well,” he said. “A lot of teeth gnashing is going on in DC about what to do with Idlib, and whether Turkey can actually combat al-Qaeda’s growing influence there.”

According to Amberin Zaman, there is also nothing unusual about the CIA head visiting Turkey.

“His predecessor went to Ankara numerous times because nearly all of the top foreign policy and security issues that matter to the United States involve Turkey. This is an opportunity for Pompeo to meet Hakan Fidan who remains alongside presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalın one of the key interlocutors for the US in Turkey,” she said.

“They will have much to discuss: The campaign against ISIS, Iran and counterterrorism in general. There is little question that Turkey will use the opportunity to make its case against the YPG and for the extradition of Gulen,” she added.

Zambian further told ARA News that Turkey would like to bring up alleged relations between the PKK and Iran.

“We are seeing Turkey increasingly invoke alleged cooperation between Iran and the PKK as a means of discrediting the YPG. It’s a theme that was taken up on Feb 7 by former US ambassador to Ankara James Jeffrey who in his testimony before the senate foreign relations committee brought up this issue as well.”

“The Trump administration has made it clear that it will take a tough line on Iran so whether this will influence its approach to the YPG remains to be seen,” she said.

Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg | Source: ARA News

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