Turkey and the United States at the Syrian Gap

At the end of a tumultuous year for Turkey in its foreign relations as well as in domestic politics, it is clear that Turkey has serious differences with the United States on Syria, the most prominent problem for both on the current global foreign policy agenda. While the two allies unfailingly continue to profess themselves to be in agreement in overall strategy if not on day-to-day tactics, the gap between them on this issue is undeniable and seems likely to widen in 2016.

When Syria first began to fracture along sectarian lines in 2011–as the Arab Spring unfolded and drew President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Barack Obama closer to each other as they supported the regionwide transition that brought the Islamist opposition to the fore in a number of Arab countries–the two leaders agreed that the resolution of the growing problem immediately beyond Turkey’s southern border required the ouster of Bashar Assad. They then quietly cooperated in supporting the emerging Sunni opposition, even as it resorted to armed resistance. However, as Assad fought on with the backing of Russia and Iran and the conflict began to drag on without a quick resolution, the Obama administration spurned repeated Turkish calls for greater U.S. engagement to achieve the declared joint goal of a Syria without the Alawite leader at the helm.

Obama’s reluctance was very much in line with his aversion, after the Afghanistan and Iraq experiences, to getting the U.S. embroiled in another major Middle East military campaign as he underlined in all his public comments on Syria. He also conveyed this unwelcome message personally to his Turkish counterpart when they met at a working dinner at the White House on May 16, 2013. While sticking rhetorically to his policy on the need for Assad to leave office as part of a settlement, Obama effectively refrained from the kind of cooperation Turkey was seeking. At the same time, the administration also began to increasingly focus on the threat posed by ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, parallel to its growing concern with the foreign fighters drawn into their ranks in their thousands from Europe and, to a much smaller extent from the U.S, and the danger they posed when they returned home.

While Washington was hitting the brakes on Syria, Ankara chose to keep its foot on the accelerator. As part of its unbending policy against Assad, Turkey intensified material support for most of his opponents, together with Qatar and, more recently, Saudi Arabia, notwithstanding the growing costs it was incurring. These included hosting over two million Syrian refugees, along with increased criticism that, as part of its pursuit of the goal of helping to engineer Assad’s downfall, it was not doing enough to stop the passage of dangerous extremists through its territory. Erdogan indignantly rejected such accusations and in turn argued that the radicalism feared by the West was the product of its failure to move against Assad and his brutal policies.

The continuing differences acted as a backdrop to the Obama-Erdogan meeting during the NATO summit in Wales in September 2014, which was held soon after major ISIS gains in Syria and Iraq had alarmed Washington and prompted the initiation of a U.S. air campaign against ISIS targets in both countries. The divergence was underlined the following month with the provision of direct U.S. military support to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) as it fought off a sustained assault by ISIS on Kobani. Significantly, the U.S. made its move despite Erdogan’s serious objections during a phone call with Obama which he subsequently repeated in numerous speeches in which he argued that the PYD was affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which Washington as well as Ankara had designated as a terrorist organization.

The agreement which was finally reached between the two countries in July 2015 over the use of Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey by the U.S. Air Force in its anti-ISIS campaign led to renewed hopes in Ankara of closer coordination with Washington. It saw the agreement as an opportunity to finally move in concert to the establishment of a ‘no-fly zone’ immediately beyond the portion of the Turkish-Syrian border controlled by Assad’s opponents as it had long advocated. Turkey saw U.S. support as indispensable in the creation of such a zone which would demonstrate in a very tangible way to Assad his inability to ever recover total domination over his country while encouraging his opponents. However, it soon became apparent that this idea was still unacceptable to the White House as well as the Pentagon because of the perceived dangers of an incremental slide into greater military involvement. To make matters worse, Turkey, for its part, continued to oppose U.S. airstrikes from Incirlik against ISIS in direct support of the PYD while continuing to warn against PYD expansion west of the Euphrates which it publicly identified as a ‘red line.’

The limited cooperative efforts were then effectively undercut by the ignominious collapse of the ‘train-and-equip program’ the two countries had undertaken on Turkish territory after extensive delays with the goal of developing a moderate ‘third force’ alongside Assad’s army and the jihadists. Nonetheless, Erdogan still harbored hopes of narrowing differences with Obama as he prepared for his first face-to-face meeting with him in over a year at the G20 summit in Antalya. On November 10, for example, he claimed after a long phone conversation with Obama that “allied countries had started moving towards the idea of terror-free zone” and even claimed that there were “positive developments on a ground operation.”

There is little doubt that the G20 meeting on November 15-16 was an overall success for Erdogan who took advantage of the global spotlight to showcase Turkey’s higher profile in international affairs. He also used it to underline his message that Turkey had returned to political stability after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) electoral victory two weeks earlier, along with his own role as the pre-eminent Turkish leader. However, Erdogan’s real yardstick for measuring the tangible results of the event was surely the extent to which he would be able to persuade Obama to move closer to his Syria policy focusing on Assad’s ouster while blocking further U.S. engagement with the PYD.

After meeting Obama on the eve of the formal opening of the summit, Erdogan referred to the Paris terror attacks two days earlier as having underlined the need for “even stronger coordination” between the two countries as “model and strategic partners.” However, Obama made it clear in his own comments after their discussions that stronger coordination should focus on restricting the passage of jihadists into Syria through Turkey. He said “The discussion we had today was very helpful in helping to continue to coordinate the work that we are doing together to help fortify the borders between Syria and Turkey that allow ISIL to operate.” Obama’s remarks helped to amplify his comments on June 9 after the G7 Summit in Germany in which he had drawn specific attention to the importance of “stemming the flow of foreign fighters” and noted that this was “an area where we have been seeking deeper cooperation with Turkish authorities who recognize it is a problem but have not fully ramped up the capacity they need.” Not surprisingly, the G20 declaration which Obama helped to fashion also drew attention to the influx of radicals into Syria. Obama underlined the message in his post-summit press conference on November 16 by stating that the G20 had “committed to strengthening border controls, sharing more information and stepping up efforts to prevent the flow of foreign fighters.”

Obama then explained the rationale behind his broader Syria policy. While reiterating his position that Assad did not have a role in Syria’s future, he also provided a strong reaffirmation of his continuing unwillingness to commit to greater military involvement in Syria. “There have been a few who suggested that we should put large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground” Obama noted before saying “that would be a mistake.” Rejecting the idea of “a no-fly zone or a safe zone” as “counterproductive,” he continued “A true safe zone requires us to set up ground operations” raising questions regarding “who would come in, who would come out...how it would work…would it become a magnet for further terrorist attacks, how many personnel would be required, and how would it end?”

Having dashed Erdogan’s hopes for a safe zone, Obama also made a point of stressing his desire to increase cooperation with Kurds in the battle against ISIS by saying that his strategy would include “strengthening Syrian and Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces that are prepared to fight.” Obama’s comments were amplified by Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, who drew a clear distinction between the PKK and the PYD in comments reported by the semi-official Anatolian News Agency. “We were clear to the Turkish Government. We share their concerns about the PKK and we also see the PKK as a terrorist organization. The PYD is working with the Sunni Arab opposition and pushing ISIL back in a way that puts pressure on Raqqa.”

Although the two leaders did not address the issue publicly at Antalya, the direct Russian military involvement in Syria in support of Assad–which had started with bombing missions by Russian aircraft on September 30 within two weeks of Erdogan visiting Moscow and failing again to persuade Putin to change his policy on Syria–inevitably complicated the effort to synchronize U.S. and Turkish policies. Obama also met with Putin during the G20 summit and, despite their disagreement on Assad’s future and the scope and nature of the Russian bombing campaign, lent their weight to the ongoing dialogue between their foreign ministers on finding a formula to solve the Syrian crisis in line with the Vienna agreement they had brokered just before the summit. There was also an Erdogan-Putin meeting in Antalya which predictably failed to bridge the fundamental divergence between them on the Syrian conflict pitting the two countries against each other in a proxy war, the bitterness of which was demonstrated by Putin’s indirect accusation against Turkey during the plenary session that “some G20 members” were providing assistance to ISIS.

The shooting down on November 24 of a Russian aircraft by a Turkish F-16, during a bombing run against Syrian Turkmens long backed by Ankara, as it traversed the southern tip of the Turkish province of Hatay helped to change the Syrian calculus even more against Turkey. It set in motion a torrent of insults and threats by Putin against Erdogan, coupled with trade and consular measures and brazen accusations that Turkey was supporting ISIS, in particular by buying its smuggled oil. Russia also intensified its military campaign against Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey and bolstered its military equipment in Syria, including with advanced anti-aircraft batteries which effectively established a no-fly zone for Turkish aircraft in northern Syria. On December 17 Putin taunted Erdogan further by saying “We have increased our presence and increased the number of warplanes. We did not have air defense systems there, but we dispatched S-400 systems to the area…Turkish planes used to fly there all the time, violating Syrian air space. Let them try it now.”

Obama’s own public comments on November 24, after a phone conversation with Erdogan soon after the incident, duly stressed Turkey’s right to defend its airspace while blaming Russia for “conducting operations close to the Turkish border against opposition groups backed by Turkey and other states.” However, Obama also called on the two countries to find a way to defuse the crisis, a view that was echoed by NATO even as it pledged solidarity with Turkey. After meeting Erdogan on December 1 in Paris on the margins of the climate change conference, Obama reiterated his twin messages by saying that Turkey had “a right to defend itself and its airspace and territory” but Turkey and Russia had “to work together to deescalate tensions and find a diplomatic path to resolve this issue.” Revealing his own priorities, Obama continued “As I mentioned to President Erdogan, we all have a common enemy, and that is ISIL. I want to make sure that we focus on that threat, and I want to make sure that we remain focused on the need to bring about some sort of political resolution in Syria.” Clearly Obama was mindful of his ongoing negotiations with Putin to find a diplomatic formula to finally end the Syrian crisis.

Obama also made a point of emphasizing his continuing concern over the Turkish-Syrian border. He said that he had “repeated conversations with President Erdogan about the need to close the border between Turkey and Syria. We’ve seen some serious progress on that front, but there are still some gaps. In particular, there’s about 98 kilometers that are still used as a transit point for foreign fighters, ISIL shipping out fuel for sale that helps finance their terrorist activities.” He said that there was “a need for Turkey to do a much better job of sealing the border…and I think President Erdogan recognizes that…This has been an ongoing conversation.” Obama continued: “We recognize that this is a central part of our anti-ISIL strategy. We’ve got to choke them off. We have to choke off how they make money. We’ve got to choke off their ability to bring in new fighters. Because we’ve taken tens of thousands of their fighters off the battlefield, but if new ones are still coming in, then they continue to maintain a stranglehold over certain population centers inside of Iraq or Syria. So we’ve got to cut off their source of new fighters.” He then focused on the threat posed by foreign recruits in ISIS by saying “If you’ve got foreign fighters coming in that are getting not only ideologically hardened but battle-hardened and then they’re returning to their home countries, they are likely candidates for engaging in the kind of terrorist attacks that we saw here in Paris.”

After attending a meeting at the Pentagon on December 14 to review the U.S. military campaign against ISIS, Obama returned to the themes he had stressed in Paris. “We continue to step up our air support and supplies to local forces–Syrian Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Turkmen–and they’re having success. After routing ISIL at Kobani and Tal Abyad, they’ve pushed ISIL back from almost across the entire border region with Turkey, and we’re working with Turkey to seal the rest.” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter followed up with similar comments immediately after the meeting as he flew to Incirlik, a trip that did not include a stop in Ankara despite Obama stressing that his visit was designed “to increase coordination with coalition partners on securing more military contributions to this fight.” Carter acknowledged that Turkey had “an enormous role to play and we appreciate what they are doing” before adding “We want them to do more. They are hosting us at Incirlik airbase but there’s more that needs to be done…The single most important contribution that their geography makes necessary is the control of their own border.” Carter then identified the gap between the two PYD-controlled cantons as “the one piece of the very long border between Syria and Turkey that has not been secured on the Syrian side yet by fighters opposed to ISIL.” He confirmed that the U.S. was prepared “to advise and assist forces that can make a difference.”

As the year ended, the U.S. and Russia intensified their efforts to find a diplomatic solution even as Russia continued to denounce Turkey for its role in the conflict. On December 15, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Moscow, again without a stopover in Ankara. After meetings with Putin and his counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Kerry said that while Washington did not “believe that Assad himself has the ability to be able to lead the future Syria” he had nevertheless “emphasized” in his talks that “The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change.” He continued “We focused today not on our differences about what can or cannot be done immediately about Assad. We focused on a process, the political process, whereby Syrians will be making decisions for the future of Syria.” The two countries then took the lead in getting UN Security Council approval three days later for the Vienna agreement they had brokered earlier and thus set in motion an 18 month long peace process scheduled to begin in January 2016.

To be sure, as one of the countries in the International Syria Support Group involved in the Vienna talks, Turkey had been part of the deliberations that culminated with the UN resolution and Erdogan had said after his meeting with Obama in Paris on December 1 “We hope and pray that the end result out of the Vienna process will provide a sigh of relief for the entire region and for Syria.” However, the unpleasant reality Turkey now confronts is one in which Assad’s future will be on the backburner as the peace process unfolds. To make matters worse, Assad will not only be on the other side of the table from representatives of opposition groups Ankara has been backing to oust him, but is also likely to continue to strengthen his position during the process because of the Russian military campaign and increasing U.S. and Western focus on the immediate ISIS threat.

It remains to be seen if the current effort to end the Syrian conflict will be more successful than the abortive Geneva effort in early 2014. It is however clear that the diplomatic, economic and military burdens Turkey is carrying because of the crisis are now much higher than they were two years ago and seem set to rise as the effort unfolds. These include even greater U.S. pressure on Turkey to seal its side of the border, while both Washington and Moscow deepen their engagement with the PYD as it hopes to expand its area of control south of the Turkish-Syrian line.

What must be especially annoying for Erdogan in the current situation, although he has chosen not to articulate it, is Obama’s willingness to effectively tolerate Assad’s continuation in power for the time being while showing intolerance for Turkish actions that might divert attention away from his primary objective of defeating ISIS. This was demonstrated by Washington’s strong response to Ankara’s decision to send additional troops into northern Iraq on December 4 without Baghdad’s approval. Obama chose to reinforce Vice President Joe Biden’s two phone calls to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urging their withdrawal with his own call to Erdogan on December 18 and then to underline his message publicly. According to the White House press release after their conversation, Obama “urged President Erdogan to take additional steps to deescalate tensions with Iraq, including by continuing to withdraw Turkish military forces, and reinforced the need for Turkey to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq.” The release stated that the two leaders had “agreed to work together on diplomatic efforts between the United States, Turkey, and Iraq to reduce tensions and to coordinate military efforts against ISIL.” It also noted that the two men had “also discussed intensifying cooperation on Syria… as well as continued efforts to create conditions for a negotiated solution to the conflict.”

Bulent Aliriza is the director of  the CSIS Turkey Project.

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Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program