The relationship between the United Sates and Turkey has long been strained by disparity in each country’s intentions and responses to the current war in Syria. In recent weeks, the tension has heightened between Ankara and Washington as both countries have had to make definitive decisions regarding their response to the war.
Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has referred to the US’s role in Syria as “impertinence”; a statement that came after US vice president, Joe Biden’s visit to Turkey, during which no agreement on military cooperation was reached between the two NATO allies. Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric and the uncertain results of Biden’s visit demonstrate the lack of harmony in the Turkey-US response to Syria.
President Erdogan insists that if the US wants Turkey’s help in fighting the extremist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the US-led coalition must fight the group on Turkey’s conditions: fighting both the Assad regime and ISIS at the same time and establishing a no-fly zone in Syria along Turkey’s southern border.
“The United States is single-mindedly focused on ISIS”, said Faysal Itani, a fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East in Washington DC. “The Turkish government sees the ISIS problem as an outgrowth of the [Assad] regime’s continued violence against the opposition”, he added.
The no-fly zone would help facilitate humanitarian response efforts and improve security for civilians. Further, it would support Syria’s rebels by blocking opposition-held areas from Assad regime’s air defence system.
“From the no-fly zone to the safety zone and training and equipping – all these steps have to be taken now, the coalition forces have not taken those steps we asked them for”, Erdogan emphasised last week. Thereafter, Turkey has offered to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels on its soil. Still, neither side has announced details of the potential next steps.
Itani, who is an expert on US policy in the Middle East and in particular with regards to the Syrian conflict, told MEMO that he believes Turkey is in support of the emergence of a Sunni-dominated Syrian state on its southern border.
US-Turkey relations were further strained by US support for the Kurdish armed groups of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northern Syria, which Turkey has viewed as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that it has been in conflict with for 30 years. The US and NATO have designated the PKK as a terrorist group.
US Vice President Joe Biden with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a joint press conference in Istanbul – 22 November 2014.
However, Turkey’s policy towards the Kurds has shifted in recent months, as the country now allows Kurdish fighters from Iraq to enter Syria through Turkey. Nevertheless, Itani explained that Turkey has an interest in preventing the existence of an “independent Kurdish political entity in Syria.” Moreover, he sees that the US is “beginning to recognise how toxic an issue this is to the Turks.”
“Ankara consider[s] it as a national threat”, said Hossam Yousef, a Syrian journalist living in Jordan, in reference to the Kurdish issue. Yousef, who is a member of the Syrian Media Organisation, told MEMO that Turkey would push towards the no-fly zone plan as long as Kurdish forces continue to flow to Syria.
On Saturday, Erdogan again stressed the importance of a no-fly zone in both Syria and Iraq during an annual meeting between the governments of Turkey and Britain. “ISIS has currently 40 per cent of Iraq under control. We have a similar situation in Syria as well. Airstrikes are not enough to stop this occupation”, he said, drawing attention to the necessity of ground operations against the terrorist group. Erdogan called on the UN Security Council and the international community to take responsibility in order to prevent humanitarian tragedies in the region.
“Politics work in accordance with interests and not emotions”, Yousef added. “From a humanitarian aspect, it is ridiculous.”
On the other hand, a US official told the Washington Post on Monday about a new plan that might take place soon in Syria in coordination with Turkey. The plan would involve a compromise between Turkey and the US by establishing a safe zone in northern Syria and allowing the US-led coalition to use Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base to fight ISIS.
According to the anonymous official, the proposed zone would be a safe area for the US-backed Syrian opposition meaning that Turkish Special Forces could move into the zone in order to assist and support rebel fighters in maintaining territory. In return, the coalition will use the Turkish base, rather than one in the Arabian Gulf, allowing them to fight ISIS more effectively. During Biden’s visit to Turkey, officials from both sides have discussed the coalition’s inclination to use Turkey’s air base, but so far no decision has been made public.
President Obama has not yet approved the proposal. Meanwhile, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Monday that a no-fly zone would not best serve their interest and, at this point, the proposal is not being considered. “We are open to discussing a range of options with the Turks”. he added.
In regards to toppling the Assad regime – as Turkey’s policy intends to do – Itani argued that the US is not “willing to bear the burden of removing [Assad] or take any responsibility for the aftermath.” He explained that the US stance is trying to avoid a long engagement in the region and to not disturb the nuclear negotiations with Iran, Assad’s best ally.
Turkey has more than a million Syrian refugees within its borders and is already struggling to cope with the large refugee population. The no-fly zone would limit the flow of refugees into Turkey and, eventually, result in “creating circumstances that would allow for their return to Syria”, according to Itani.
If the mutual desire of both countries is to put an end to the crisis in Syria, fighting Assad and ISIS at the same time is essential. However, both administrations need to compromise in order to decide on an effective and agreeable plan of action. Modifications need to be made in Washington’s policy on Syria to focus more on fighting the Assad regime, while Turkey must commit its efforts to defeating ISIS.
Abdulrahman al-Masri is a Syrian freelance journalist. Follow him on twitter.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.