Former U.S envoy James Jeffrey calls for realpolitik approach towards Turkey

The United States should consider pursuing a realpolitik-based approach to relations with Turkey, retired U.S ambassador James Jeffrey said in an interview with Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency

Jeffrey, who served as Special Envoy to Syria under former president President Donald Trump, suggested that the new administration under President Joe Biden should continue the approach of its predecessor in dealings with Turkey. 

Biden’s stated priorities of tackling COVID-19, as well as focusing on China and global climate change, would necessitate cooperation with other countries that include Turkey, Jeffrey said.

"We should pay less attention to [foreign] countries' domestic issues to protect a wide alliance as much as possible as a priority. This is what we did during the Cold War. We did this successfully with a country like Turkey which had an important role. I think we can reach that point within 6 months, this is why I said it would take 6 months [for US-Turkey relations to get better].” Jeffrey told Anadolu.

Asked about the wider state of U.S.-Turkey relations, Jeffrey remarked that he saw the current state as one of “tranquility” that he sees as improving within his proposed time frame. 

Under Jeffrey’s tenure, Turkey escalated its aggressive rhetoric against the United States over its support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Included within the militia are members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) which Ankara accuses of being an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but Jeffrey frequently played down any differences between the two NATO allies here. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan launched two military offensives against the SDF that put American troops at risk. He even threatened to deliver “an Ottoman slap ‘to American forces stationed in Syria if they were to resist his advance.  

Asked whether Washington ever supported any Kurdish political project in Syria, Jeffrey said the U.S never made any promises and discouraged the notion it ever did.  

"We told it to them many times. Even when contacting their autonomous systems, we were very cautious. If you are Syrian, there will be a political process under the supervision of the United Nations and some conditions including the new constitution ... Whatever you do, you should do it with the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime. This is your job, not ours. We told it clearly to everyone,” said Jeffrey. 

Jeffrey was also asked about how the disagreement over Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia in 2017 could be resolved. Last December, the Trump administration sanctioned members of the Turkish defence sector for the purchase. 

In his assessment, Jeffrey said the best option would be to limit the damage the S-400 debate has inflicted on the U.S. -Turkey relationship as the Trump administration attempted to do before Turkey tested the system last October. 

He predicted that if Turkey purchased another Russian system or went ahead with acquiring the second regiment of missiles, both sides will keep to their respective positions.