The US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has arrived in Iraq in a surprise visit to talk to the senior Iraqi officials. Upon his arrival on Tuesday, the Defense Secretary said that the ISIS terrorists have now come to a military dead end that presses them against the two sides of the Euphrates River where in one side stands Iraq and in the other side Syria.
Mattis visit came on the heels of his trip to Turkey that took him to discuss matters with the Turkish leaders. Later last week, the Turkish officials said that they expected the US Secretary of Defense's trip to their country. Analysts suggest that the timing of the trip by itself is on the one hand signaling the US reaction to the Syrian developments that followed the mid-January three-party meeting of the Russian, Iranian, and Turkish diplomats in Moscow and the last week visit of the Iranian military chief to Ankara. On the other hand, the US seems to be trying to add to efforts to restore Ankara's lost trust in Washington.
The US Defense Secretary's visit to Turkey and then Iraq calls the attention as it comes just short after the Iranian army chief travelled to Turkey. Three days before Mattis Turkey visit, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey hosted Iran's chief of staff General Mohamad Bagheri and he is expected to also host the Russian chief of staff Valery Gerasimov.
Many political experts maintain that such visits by Iranian and Russian military leaders to Turkey are paving the ground for establishing strategic security alliance between Tehran, Moscow, and Ankara before the upcoming Astana peace talks on Syria.
Despite the fact that the Department of Defense had told of the Mattis visit to take place earlier, but it is taking place right after the Iranian top military official's visit to Ankara, signaling that it comes in form of an American reaction to the Iranian and Russian security trips to Ankara.
Perhaps a fear from emergence of a region alliance that gathers together Tehran, Moscow, and Ankara on the fighting of terrorism in Syria is the main drive provoking the American leaders to rush to attempts that they think will contribute to their aims to foil the possible joining of forces. But even if this is a reactionary step by Washington which wants to have hand in the upcoming Syrian developments, it must be said that the US lost the initiative at least in relation to Syria. The fact is that, the Syrian case that once was in the hands of the US and its regional allies is now held by a Russian-Iranian-Turkish axis and beyond the American power to manipulate. In such conditions, the Defense Secretary's visit to Turkey comes while the US sees it inevitable to react more than being able to freely handle an initiative and decide which direction the developments of the Syrian crisis should go.
Before Mattis visit to the region, the Department of Defense issued a statement in which it outlined objectives of the trip. It stated that the trip will be taken as an opportunity to reiterate to Ankara the Washington commitment to alliance with Turkey as a significant ally and member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). But aside from the appeasing American steps, the US-Turkey differences at least on the Syrian Kurds, who are backed the US on the battlefield, remain firmly standing and show no signs of abatement as long as Washington keeps its support.
Turkey has been strongly lashing at the US for its backing for a coalition of Syria's Kurdish militant groups serving under leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Ankara several times warned the US that its help to the Kurds was harmful to the Turkish national security.
The US administration is equipping People's Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the PYD, and is providing it with ground and air cover as it pushes to retake Raqqa, the ISIS' Syria stronghold and the de facto capital of the terrorist group's so-called caliphate. But Ankara blacklists YPG as a terrorist group as it recognizes the militant group as the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Turkey's archenemy against which the Turkish military has been fighting for over three decades.
This Turkish labeling has been a sticking point cracking the Ankara and Washington's alliance in Syria. So far, the Turkish leaders showed resistance to the American pressures to soften stances on the Syrian Kurds. However, the unbending Turkish stance on the US sponsoring of the Kurdish fighters made Washington leaders to assure the Turkish officials that once the anti-ISIS campaign comes to an end, they will disarm the Kurds. Nevertheless, this assurance attempt appeared to be far from successful as Turkey every now and then urges the US to halt aids to the Kurdish forces.
The persistence of the gaps between the Turks and Americans despite Washington's steps to assure Ankara can be blamed on the current distrust of the Turkish leadership in the US administration. The ongoing existence of distrust is clearly observable in Pentagon statement that pointed to trust-making goals behind the Mattis visit of Turkey. In fact, the Defense Secretary travels to push ahead the assurance efforts already started by other American officials.
Even if Turkey gets the necessary guarantees from the US, it has limitation taking the side of the US-led coalition in Syria because Ankara recently took practical steps towards joining the Russo-Iranian camp and that it makes its policy extraordinarily awkward to support Washington while standing on the opposite side. This makes Turkey's mind divided between two options: further embracing the Moscow-Tehran camp or buying the American assurance. Choosing one will mean dropping the other.