ISTANBUL: Vice President Joe Biden on Friday will become the latest in a parade of U.S. officials trying to push Turkey to step up its role in the international coalition’s fight against Islamic State extremists.
His visit comes after weeks of public bickering between the two NATO allies. The Turkish president insists that if the U.S. wants his help, it must focus less on fighting IS and more on toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants the U.S.-led coalition to set up a security zone in northern Syria to give moderate fighters a place to recoup and launch attacks.
The U.S. has no appetite to go to war against Assad and has said a no-fly zone against Syria’s air force is a no-go.
Turkey has pledged to train and equip moderate Syrian forces on its soil, but no details have been announced by either side. U.S. and Turkish officials have discussed the coalition’s desire to use Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base for U.S.-led operations against IS militants, but Turkey has made no public decision about Incirlik.
“From the no-fly zone to the safety zone and training and equipping—all these steps have to be taken now,” Erdoğan said on Wednesday. Then he echoed the same line he’s been saying all along: “The coalition forces have not taken those steps we asked them for. … Turkey’s position will be the same as it is now.”
That’s after a U.S. military delegation spent two days in Ankara last week trying to hammer out details to implement Turkey’s pledge to train and equip moderate fighters. That’s after top U.S. military officials visited Incirlik in the past few weeks. And it follows two visits in two months by retired Marine Gen. John Allen, the U.S. envoy for the international coalition.
Allen told the Turkish daily Milliyet on Wednesday in Ankara that fighting extremists in Iraq was the “main effort” right now, but that’s not the only effort and “we’ll be doing that in Syria as well.”
“Eventually, of course, our policy intent for the U.S. is that there be a political outcome in Syria that does not include Bashar Assad,” said Allen, who left Turkey for NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Now it’s Biden’s turn.
He plans a dinner meeting Friday with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. On Saturday, Biden is to have an extended meeting with Erdoğan, and plans to fly back to Washington on Sunday.
The obvious compromise would be if Washington shifted its policy on Syria to do more to force out Assad, and Turkey agreed to do more against IS, said James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Jeffrey is not holding his breath.
“Erdoğan is a tough customer to reason with, but Turkey is already a major source of stability and support in region and could be better if we play cards right,” Jeffrey said. “But Erdoğan is, at this point, troublingly unpredictable.”
Turkish officials say Turkey is an active partner in the coalition.
Besides pledging to train moderate Syrian forces, Turkey gave Kurdish fighters from Iraq permission to traverse its soil on their way to help Kurdish fighters in the besieged Syrian town of Kobani near Turkey’s border. That was an unprecedented step for Erdoğan, but Turkey’s military has been inactive regarding the IS advance on the town.
Turkey has good relations with the Kurds in Iraq, but it views the Kurds in Syria as an extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party. The party has waged a 30-year insurgency against the Turkish government and is designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO. Asked if more Kurdish fighters from Iraq would be moving through Turkey, a Turkish official said: “Yes, we might see them again.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about Turkey’s policy on Syria.
Turkey also is hosting 1.6 million Syrian refugees. Washington acknowledges that Ankara has worked to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Syria, although it’s still easy in some places to move across for a price. U.S. officials also say Turkey has cracked down on oil smugglers. Analysts estimate that IS earns up to $3 million a day in revenue from oil fields captured in Iraq and Syria.
Still, the U.S. and Turkey are not in sync about Syria, and Biden’s visit follows weeks of misunderstandings and harsh rhetoric emanating from both capitals.
Locals in Istanbul have dubbed one flap the “apology-no apology,” which began over something Biden said in a speech at Harvard University.
Biden said that early in the Syrian conflict, Turkey assisted extremists because they were seeking to depose Assad. Erdoğan demanded an apology; the White House said Biden called Erdoğan to apologize, but Biden said he didn’t.
There was more disagreement over whether Turkey had decided to let the U.S. use Incirlik base for operations against extremists in Syria and Iraq.
Aggravating the tension was an incident last week in Istanbul where three American sailors from the USS Ross were roughed up by anti-American demonstrators.