The United States and Turkey have pulled back from the brink of a potentially disastrous crisis, agreeing to normalise badly strained relations over Syria and other issues that had threatened the NATO allies’ longstanding ties.
During a two-day visit by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the two sides announced the creation of new “mechanisms” to improve the relationship, starting with the question of American support for Kurdish rebels as Turkey proposed a joint deployment in Syria.
The allies have been at odds since Turkey launched an air and ground assault last month against the US-backed Kurdish militia YPG in Syria, trapping thousands of Kurdish civilians in the conflict zone.
Turkey views the YPG as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought an insurgency in Turkey for almost 40 years and is considered a terrorist group by the United States, Turkey and Europe.
Earlier this week, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan suggested at a meeting of his parliamentarians that the Americans would feel an “Ottoman slap” if they continued to push back against the Turkish offensive against the Kurds.
Alluding to the US he said anyone standing “side-by-side” with the Kurdish forces in Syria saying they are not members of the PKK are either “ill-intended or blind and stupid”.
“We find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship,” Mr Tillerson told a news conference after meeting with Mr Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu yesterday.
“We’ve decided, and President Erdogan decided last night, we needed to talk about how do we go forward. The relationship is too important.”
Other topics discussed between the US and Turkey included Ankara’s complaints against a US-based Turkish cleric who Mr Erdogan accuses of fomenting a failed 2016 coup, US concerns about the state of Turkey’s democracy and opposition to Turkey’s planned purchase of a Russian air defence system.
“We brought forward proposals on how we can address all of the critical issues that are standing between our countries,” Mr Tillerson said.
Relationship at ‘critical turning point’
As their key allies in Syria and the main force battling the Islamic State on the ground, the US has supplied the Kurds with weapons, training and supplies since 2014.
This week, the US offered a budget plan that would send the Kurds the bulk of $550 million in new assistance.
Mr Erdogan has made continuous requests for the US to stop funding Kurdish “terrorists” saying “this is not what allies do”.
The United States has no troops on the ground in Afrin, where the Turkish offensive has so far taken place.
But Turkey has proposed extending its campaign further east to the town of Manbij, where US troops are based, potentially leading to direct confrontation with US-backed units.
“Our relations were at a critical turning point,” Mr Cavusoglu said during a joint press conference with Mr Tillerson.
“We were either going to correct this or it was going to take a turn for the worse.”
Mr Tillerson stressed the long-standing nature of the relationship between the two states.
“Ours is not an alliance of convenience,” he said.
“It is a time-tested alliance built on mutual respect. We’re going to work together moving forward.”
Mr Tillerson said he recognised Turkey’s legitimate right to defend its borders, but called on Ankara to show restraint in the Afrin operation and avoid actions that would escalate tensions in the area.
Growing humanitarian crisis
Since Turkish troops launched their assault on the province of Afrin, at least 140 have been killed and more than 300 hundred injured, according to medical authorities.
“Medical supplies are inadequate, especially surgical supplies, because of the increasing number of wounded,” said Angela Rasho, co-chair of the Health Council in Afrin province.
“There has been a serious shortage of medical staff who have spread out to different locations to relieve the pressure on Afrin’s main hospital and allow it to focus on serious operations such as limb amputations,” Ms Rasho said after making a desperate plea for humanitarian aid.
As the attack continues from all sides, Oxfam estimate around 250,000 civilians have been trapped inside the conflict zone.
“Civilians, including women and children, are in danger from both aerial attack and ground fire of various kinds,” Oxfam’s country director for Syria, Moutaz Adham, told ABC.
“Civilians there are in urgent need of all essential items such as food, water and shelter, with limited supplies of aid trickling through.”
Mr Adham said the flow of information was being hindered by violence and insecurity, but they feared many more may have fled to the area to escape fighting in Idlib province and were now trapped there also.
He urged all parties to cooperate in opening a safe passage for refugees and allow the flow of aid supplies.
“In the name of humanity, these people who have suffered so much already should be allowed to safely escape the violence,” he said.
One father of five children described feeling abandoned and helpless.
“I feel I am of no value. No-one is coming to help us. I didn’t realise our lives were so cheap,” the man said.
Mr Adham urged all parties to the conflict “to engage in sincere and inclusive political talks to reach a peaceful end to this bloody conflict”.