The Vice President’s Difficult Trip to Turkey

On November 21, Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Istanbul for a two day visit during which he will meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. According to a November 18 White House briefing prior to his departure on the three nation trip that will conclude in Turkey, “the Vice President will discuss cooperation in fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq; coping with the humanitarian crisis caused by the conflicts on Turkey’s southern border and countering the threat posed by foreign fighters.” While the focus would be on countering ISIS, “promoting the Cyprus settlement process and other regional issues” would also be on the agenda. 

Mr. Biden’s high profile trip will be the most recent effort in the ongoing U.S. campaign to persuade Turkey to give greater support in the fight against ISIS which has established brutal control over much of Syria as well as portions of Iraq. Although it is clear that Turkey's contribution has not been at the level the U.S. would have liked, U.S. officials have been generally reluctant to publicize their disappointment. Instead they have chosen to emphasize areas of convergence and to downplay fundamental divergences.

Mr. Biden’s meeting with Erdogan will be their first since the two leaders met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 25, and “agreed” that “ISIS was a regional threat” that “required a regional strategy to be defeated” according to a readout from the White House. Unfortunately their private discussion was followed by a public controversy which has persisted.

During an address at Harvard a week after his meeting with the Turkish President, the Vice President stated that Erdogan had admitted to him that his country had “let too many [foreign fighters] through” but it –along with other countries in the region– had “awakened” to the threat and was moving towards joining the coalition being put together by Washington. Erdogan quickly denied this characterization of their conversation and declared that Biden would “be history” for him if the press reports proved to be accurate. This led to a phone call to Erdogan in which, according to his spokeswoman, Mr. Biden “apologized for any implication that Turkey or other allies and partners in the region had intentionally supplied or facilitated the growth of ISIS or other violent extremists in Syria.”

Although the controversy was re-ignited by Mr. Biden’s assertion on CNN on November 3 that he had “never apologized” to Erdogan, White House officials involved in the pre-trip briefing argued that the relationship between Biden and Erdogan was “in a good place” and that there was “no need for reconciliation.” Despite their assurances, the public friction has served to highlight the undeniable gap between Ankara and Washington on the nature and scope of Turkish participation in Obama’s stated mission to “degrade and destroy ISIS” despite more than two months of discussions.

As part of U.S. planning for the expansion of the military campaign against ISIS into Syria, President Obama announced on September 5 at the NATO Summit in Cardiff his intention to form a broad based coalition of Western nations to fight ISIS, and met with Erdogan to discuss the possible role that Turkey could play. The President then sent Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Turkey on September 9 to follow up. However, despite a positive characterization of the talks by the U.S. side, Secretary Hagel’s meetings with Erdogan and other Turkish officials failed to overcome Turkish reservations about joining the emerging coalition under U.S. leadership. The major impediment publicly articulated by Ankara at this stage was concern over the safety of 49 Turkish hostages, including diplomats and their families, who were taken when ISIS took over the Turkish Consulate as they captured Mosul on June 10.

As the U.S. labored to bring into being the coalition of Middle Eastern Sunni states who would work alongside the Western coalition to defeat ISIS, Turkish reticence to join the coalition persisted. In Jeddah on September 11, ten Arab states –who had by then agreed to confront ISIS through resolutions adopted at the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League– and the U.S. signed the Jeddah Communique, which committed the participating nations to act jointly against the threat posed by ISIS. However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who also attended the meeting, refrained from signing the document. Although Secretary of State John Kerry flew from Jeddah to Ankara the next day to meet with Erdogan and Davutoglu as well as his Turkish counterpart, there was no breakthrough.

The Turkish hostages were released by ISIS on September 20 through an arrangement the details of which have still not been revealed by Ankara, but it was not until he was in New York that Erdogan publicly indicated that his country would give support "including military" to the U.S.-led coalition, which began airstrikes targeting ISIS inside Syria on September 22. He did not provide specific details and said that the extent of the support would be determined after his return to Turkey.

On October 2, the Turkish Grand National Assembly combined, expanded and renewed two existing authorizations which were due to expire, thus allowing the use of military force in Syria and Iraq “to defeat attacks directed toward the country from all terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria” and permitting the entry of foreign forces into Turkey to that end. This legislative move, combined with tighter restrictions on the passage of Islamist radicals into Syria through Turkey and additional curbs on the reported oil trade with areas in Northern Syria controlled by the radicals, encouraged hopes in Washington that Ankara was finally moving towards joining the coalition in earnest.

The following weeks witnessed visits to Ankara by Special Presidential Envoy General John Allen and his deputy Brett McGurk –who are coordinating the U.S. effort to fight ISIS– and a number of other civilian and military officials, along with a high volume of telephone conversations between Washington and Ankara. However, the most tangible support provided by Ankara so far has been the unpublicized surveillance drone flights out of the air base at Incirlik in southern Turkey. While Turkey has also promised the United States that it would allow the training of moderate Syrian fighters on its territory, Erdogan cautioned on November 20 that the details had not been finalized.
Erdogan has made it very clear in numerous public statements that his main condition for full cooperation with the United States is an agreement on the definition of the joint mission as the pursuit of the goal of ousting the Syrian leader Bashar Assad. Accordingly, he will no doubt try to nudge Mr. Biden towards accepting the related Turkish conditions, namely the establishment of a no fly zone –which the unnamed White House briefers on November 18 said was not “off the table” but was also not being “contemplated at the moment”– and a security belt inside Syrian territory beyond the Turkish border. As he will surely reiterate at length to his visitor, Ankara views the problem posed by Islamist radical groups like ISIS as a symptom of the bigger problem which is Assad’s continuation in office.

In Washington's view, acceding to the Turkish request to make the ouster of Assad rather than defeating ISIS the primary goal of the campaign would inevitably commit the U.S. to the kind of long term military engagement in the Syrian civil war President Obama has been carefully avoiding for three years. In addition to the logistical costs and difficulties associated with establishing a no-fly zone and a security belt, there would also be major international complications with Assad’s main backers, Russia and Iran, who, together with Syria itself, are currently not raising objections to the airstrikes on ISIS in Syria. It would also undermine the unacknowledged objective alliance with Iran in confronting the perceived common threat from ISIS, which Mr. Obama emphasized in his letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei on November 7, while endangering efforts to strike a deal with Iran on its nuclear program. 

On November 16, in his press conference after the G20 summit in Brisbane, President Obama sought to quash speculation that he was moving towards changing his Syria strategy. He responded with a simple “no” to a question about whether the U.S. was actively discussing ways to remove Assad from power as part of a political transition even as he repeated his standard denunciation of Assad’s rule in Syria. His comments must surely have come as a disappointment to Davutoglu, who had told the Turkish press a day before that his conversation with Mr. Obama at the summit had led him to believe that the U.S. position was moving closer to that of Turkey.

It is significant that the continuing U.S.-Turkish differences over how to confront ISIS have spilled over into the always sensitive Turkish-Kurdish arena.  On October 19, U.S. aircraft dropped 27 bundles of arms and other supplies to assist Syrian Kurds who had been fighting for weeks to defend the town of Kobani on the Turkish-Syrian border against ISIS attacks. President Obama had informed Erdogan of his decision a day earlier after an ultimately futile American effort to persuade Turkey to help save Kobani from falling to ISIS by intervening itself or by allowing Syrian Kurds from other Kurdish ‘cantons’ in Northern Syria to do so by crossing through Turkish territory. Erdogan promptly denounced the U.S. action and revealed that he had strongly objected to the unilateral move by Washington in his phone conversation with Obama. He has been arguing that for Turkey “the PKK is the same as ISIS” and the Syrian Kurdish organization, the PYD, was “the same as the PKK terrorist organization” which has been fighting Turkey for over 30 years. Although Turkey has allowed a small group of Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga to cross into Kobani through Turkey, Erdogan has also been questioning the international focus on the fate of Kobani and even implying that this was part of a conspiracy against Turkish interests.

The reality Biden will face in his meetings in Istanbul is that there are major and persistent differences between the U.S. and Turkey over not just the means but also the goals of the current campaign. Ankara does not share the basic premises of Mr. Obama’s policy which are that ISIS is an immediate major threat that supersedes all other threats, that it is even more dangerous to the countries in the region than to the United States itself and that as such it needs to be the primary focus of cooperation between the two allies. Given the limited returns so far on the diplomatic investment made by Washington in its effort to get Turkey fully on board in the campaign against ISIS, it seems unlikely that the Biden trip will yield the kind of immediate and concrete result the Obama Administration would surely wish to see.

If it does continue beyond Biden’s visit, the current impasse will revive memories of the prolonged and ultimately unsuccessful effort by the Bush Administration throughout 2002 and the first two months of 2003 –immediately after the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had come into office– to persuade Turkey to allow U.S. troops to attack Iraq from the north. It is worth noting that the failure of the U.S. and Turkey to reach an accord by March 1, 2003 had raised very serious questions at both ends of the relationship about the very nature of their alliance.

Bulent Aliriza is director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.

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