Washington woke up with a morning tweet from President Donald Trump on Tuesday announcing he had ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and named CIA Director Mike Pompeo as his replacement.
Tillerson had been touring African countries, but reports that he had cut his travel short and returned home early had led to media speculation a day before.
Top Tillerson aide and State Department Under Secretary Steve Goldstein said Tillerson did not speak to Trump before he was fired on Tuesday and was “unaware” of the reason behind his dismissal.
Trump later made it clear that he and Tillerson were not on the same page, especially on Iran.
There will be direct consequences of Tillerson’s departure on Turkey-U.S. relations.
Following Tillerson’s nearly three-and-a-half hour meeting with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month, the two countries announced they would be forming three working-groups. Tillerson’s decision to meet the Turkish president on his own, without any translator or aides, with only Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu doubling up as an interpreter, caused a stir in both the Turkish and U.S. media at the time.
It is unclear what will happen to the working-groups now, or even if they will continue working. As a matter of fact, we might never be able to learn what the parties negotiated exactly during that meeting since there were no note-takers present either.
One of the striking outcomes of Tillerson’s Ankara visit was that he said the United States would abide by its promises to Turkey regarding the Syrian Kurdish-held town of Manbij. The promise Tillerson was talking was made by previous Vice-President Joe Biden, who said that Kurdish forces would pull back from Manbij to the east of the River Euphrates, once the threat from Islamic State (ISIS) was eliminated.
Tillerson’s pledge to grant Biden’s promise was lauded in Ankara, since the top U.S. and anti-ISIS coalition commanders, just a week before Tillerson’s visit to Ankara, said Syrian Kurdish forces would stay in Manbij indefinitely, challenging Erdoğan and Turkish officials.
It was quite evident that the Pentagon and Tillerson’s State Department did not see things eye-to-eye on Manbij.
Some Washington insiders said Tillerson’s assurances in Ankara were not in line with the White House and Pentagon and the secretary of state was pursuing his own Syria and Turkey policy and ignoring the position of the White House and Pentagon.
The three working groups the countries decided to establish were for Iraq-related issues, Syria-related issues and a third one on the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Turkish preacher that Turkey blames for its 2016 failed coup. The working groups met for the first time last week and the Turkish side had very high hopes for the meetings.
The Turkish team, speaking to some Turkish reporters, explained that the parties reached an agreement on Manbij and that Afrin, a Syrian Kurdish-held enclave besieged by Turkish troops for nearly two months, was not even on the agenda.
Çavuşoğlu too, on the day that Tillerson was fired, painted a rosy picture of the working group talks. According to the Turkish foreign minister, Turkey got just about everything it demanded from the United States.
Çavuşoğlu said the U.S. side said it would not interfere with Afrin and agreed that Syrian Kurdish forces should withdraw from Manbij, and even from the east bank of River Euphrates. Then, according to Çavuşoğlu, Turkish and U.S. soldiers would patrol the Syrian cities.
U.S. officials did not deny or confirm these statements, which appeared too good to be true for the Turkish side, and experts are having a hard time believing Çavuşoğlu’s account of the meetings.
Now the U.S. side is expected to reconsider these deals, or alleged deals, under the leadership of the hawkish Pompeo.
The new secretary of state will most likely want to go over these agreements with his new team, which is also expected to be more hawkish than before.
Pompeo is also unlikely to fulfil a meeting between Tillerson scheduled with Çavuşoğlu on March 19.
Pompeo, a former Tea Party Republican from Kansas, is well known for being an open and harsh critic of political Islamists. We will have to wait and see how Pompeo, who in a now-deleted tweet called Erdoğan’s Turkey a “totalitarian Islamic dictatorship”, will shape U.S. policies towards Turkey.
Pompeo, before the Turkish constitutional referendum in April 2017, said he was worried about Turkey. “Turkey is a NATO partner. We need them to behave as such. We need them to be a partner in lots of dimensions. You think about issues related to intelligence but broader, finance flows,” Pompeo said. “They have frankly done better work as of late in preventing foreign terrorists from going to Syria. Although it is a lot less exciting to go there these days than it has been for a couple of years. So there have been pockets they have helped us, but there have been places where they have not always been the most productive ally. They are great. They let us participate in exercises. They’re very very important, but we need them to be a full-fledged partner against this threat.”
Pompeo will begin preparations for new Middle East and Iran policies and soon we will see what changes an anti-Iran hawk will bring to U.S. Syria policies.
It was well known the United States wanted to work with the Kurds in Syria to break the influence of Iran. From this point of view, it seems possible that with the arrival of Pompeo, the U.S. might move even closer to the Syrian Kurds. On the other hand, it is also known that the CIA has less sympathy for the Syrian Kurdish forces in Syria than the Pentagon and it is unclear if Pompeo was influenced by this outlook while in Langley.
What about Washington’s previous promises to Turkey? Even Tillerson’s promises?
We will see whether it will be the pragmatic Pompeo, who went to Ankara to repair ties on his first foreign visit as CIA director, or the one who called Erdoğan a “totalitarian Islamic dictator” who will prevail.