The US and Turkey, the Middle East’s only NATO member state, are at a frustrating point in their relationship.
The Syrian city of Kobane, which is on the Turkish border, is in danger of falling to ISIS. Turkey has lined up tanks on its border but isn’t sending in troops and is actively impeding Kurdish militants looking to reinforce the town. The US is bombing ISIS outside of Kobane, but the overwhelming likelihood is that neither side’s actions are meeting the other’s hopes or expectations.
Yet today, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted during a press conference in Paris that there was “no discrepancy” between the US and Turkey on the issue.
This is unlikely. Turkey has plotted its policy in Syria with the implicit assumption the US would act forcefully to remove the government of Syria President Bashar al-Assad. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for Assad’s ouster in mid-2011 and took a much harder line against a diplomatic solution to the conflict than the US and its other allies. Turkey has since accommodated over 1 million Syrian refugees within its borders. However, Turkey has also turned a blind eye to jihadist facilitation networks and selectively enforced the movement of fighters across the border.
Turkey bet on Assad losing the war early on and isn’t changing its strategy to adjust to the reality his regime is no longer living under an immediate existential threat. And Erdogan’s government has approached the crisis with the expectation the US or the NATO states would intervene on their side, most notably when Turkish leaders invoked the mutual defence provision of the NATO charter after a Turkish fighter plane was shot down in Syrian airspace in June of 2012.
Turkey’s Syria strategy is considered a failure. Erdogan’s administration acted in a way that aided extremist groups while waiting on outside help that never came. And now a US-led coalition is now undertaking airstrikes that many anti-Assad groups are less than thrilled about, and which have targeted jihadist organisations like Jabhat al-Nusra that have fought alongside some of Syria’s more moderate anti-Assad factions.
Erdogan clearly sees the US bombing campaign against ISIS as something of a betrayal. In recent days, he’s characterised western actors in the region as foreign meddlers, or “Lawrence of Arabia” figures — comments that have been read as an uncharitable reference to the American military operations.
Turkey’s been noncommittal about allowing the US to use airbases in the country for attacks on ISIS and the country is a ways off from fully joining the anti-ISIS coalition.
The US, for its part, might think Turkey isn’t doing enough for the anti-ISIS effort, considering its NATO membership, geographical proximity, and the military buildup outside of Kobane.
Kerry’s insistence there’s “no discrepancy” between the US and Turkey plainly goes against the current dynamic along the Syrian border and against the larger trend in relations between the two countries during the Syria conflict. However, Kerry’s comments get at the Obama administration’s belief that its relationship with Turkey is salvageable — and that Erdogan could still be willing to cooperate in Syria.
On the other hand, they might just show how desperate US policy in the region is getting.
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