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Strengthened US-Turkey relations solidify Ankara’s new strategy in Syria

“We target those who target Turkey,” said Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on Monday, in reference to his country’s change in posture in the Syrian war. Turkey initiated its first airstrikes on ISIS last week, declaring war against the extremist militia and demonstrating an utterly new strategy towards its war-torn southern neighbour. This comes after years of deliberate resistance to engaging militarily in the conflict.

The Turkish strategy is being implemented rapidly and has already pushed for the establishment of a “safe zone” in areas that will be cleared of ISIS fighters in northern Syria. The proposed zone is reported to be a 20-mile deep no-fly zone for displaced Syrians along a 70-mile stretch of Turkey’s border with Syria.

The advancements made by Syrian Kurdish forces on the Turkish border – especially after the capture of the bordering town Tal Abyad – alarmed Turkey’s top military officers, said Mustafa Gurbuz, a research fellow at Rethink Institute in Washington. “This made them more open to Erdogan’s eagerness for a security zone in Syria.” Gurbuz, whose research focuses on Kurdish movements in the Middle East, identifies gains made by Kurdish groups in Syria as the reason behind Turkey’s crackdown on ISIS.

In contrast, others insist that despite the fact that Kurdish separatism is considered to be a threat to the Turks, the country has faced intense international criticism and pressure to take action in Syria. Given Turkey’s position as a route for jihad fighters to enter Syria, it has become increasingly difficult for the government in Ankara to defend its resistance to engage in the conflict.

The war that Turkey has declared on ISIS has not been described as official participation in the coalition airstrikes led by the US. Turkish warplanes have also targeted positions in Iraq belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has been in conflict with Turkey since 1984 and is regarded as a terrorist organisation by the US, EU and Turkey.

“It is not verbally but still signaling that they are both [ISIS and PKK] the same threat as seen by the government in Turkey,” said Renad Mansour, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Centre.

Mansour added that Turkey’s attacks on the PKK will set back the emerging peace process he believes to be taking place in Turkey regarding Kurdish affairs. Despite any progress that has been made for reconciliation among Turks and the Kurds, the PKK, according to Mansour, is the biggest threat to Turkey’s domestic stability. ”The Kurdish question has always been the biggest paranoia,” he claimed.

Following the recent attacks on its territory, Turkey requested a special meeting of NATO to discuss possible military operations against ISIS. “Turkey didn’t ask for any additional military NATO presence,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told journalists following the meeting on Tuesday. No further details were given.

The Turkish army ranks as the second largest military force in NATO. For the organisation’s members, an attack against one is considered an attack against all. According to Mansour, Turkey is “starting to frame everything within NATO to remind the US that they are allies.”

What does Washington think of Turkey now?

Historically, Turkey and the United States have never experienced strong relations, and tensions have escalated in recent years over the disparity in the two countries’ intentions and responses to the war in Syria.

Erdogan has maintained that if the US wants Turkey’s help in fighting ISIS, the US-led coalition must target the Assad regime, in addition to ISIS. Turkey views the growth of ISIS in Syria to be the result of the regime’s violence against the opposition. This condition contradicts Obama’s vision to fight ISIS exclusively. Causing further complications, the Obama administration supports some Kurdish armed groups in north-eastern Syria, which Turkey considers to be extensions of the PKK.

These strained relations, however, have been loosened in recent months with compromises carried out by both governments. The Syrian opposition views potential coordination between Turkey and the US as providing hope for an effective plan to be implemented in Syria.

The US has finally agreed “in principle” to Turkey’s long-made demand for the establishment of a “safe zone” on its border. In return, Erdogan confirmed on Friday that his country would allow the US – “within a certain framework” – to use the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey for military operations against the militant extremists.

Mustafa Gurbuz noted that Turkey did not insert preconditions about the safe zone this time, as in previous dialogues with the US on Syria. He added that Turkey is working towards prioritising “cooperation with the US on nurturing anti-Assad forces” given the considerable rebel advances in Idlib province in Syria’s north-west. “Turkey’s push will be ever stronger if a security zone is established,” he added.

Unlike the Assad regime, the Syrian opposition has welcomed the Turkish move, saying that anti-ISIS airstrikes by Turkey serve the interests of the Syrian people. “A safe zone in northern Syria protected from Assad’s air and artillery attacks will be good for all sides,” insisted Monzer Akbik, a senior member of the Syrian National Coalition and its representative in exile.

Akbik believes that the recent affinity between the US and Turkey is “not a coincidence” after the Iran nuclear deal. He suggested that US rapprochement with Turkey was encouraged by countries in the Arab peninsula – mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar – which in recent months have taken part in high-level talks with Turkey on Syria.

US allies in the Gulf seem concerned about Iran’s role in Syria and are apprehensive that the lifting of sanctions against Tehran will enable greater involvement in Syria and influence in the region. Potential coordination between the US and Turkey will, therefore, more than likely be supported by the Gulf States and viewed as a shift back in their favour.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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