As Biden flies to Turkey to repair dwindling sentiments, Ankara showcases its strong ties with Kurdistan
As much as Turkey has tried to steer clear of the Syrian civil war and the battle against the Islamic State (IS), it has found itself at the centre of the conflict in one way or another. Turkey has found itself embroiled in the conflict with the flood of millions of refugees, an extensive IS oil smuggling network and flow of foreign fighters and arms across the border.
At the same time, Turkish relations with the United States have deteriorated rapidly. Relations may have cooled with increasing harsh rhetoric setting the tone but Turkey remains centre stage to the battle against IS as well as the eventual quest to topple Bashar al-Assad.
This week US Vice President Joe Biden flew into Turkey with the aim of reaching a compromise and patching ties. Public smiles and upbeat tones aside, privately the talks between Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will be anything but straight forward.
After all, this is the same Biden who caused heated controversy with suggestions that Turkey helped Islamic fighters seeking to depose Assad, which fast turned into a did-he or did-he not apologise farce.
Biden and Davutolgu struck a conciliatory tone at their press conference and played down differences stressing their relations as long-time allies.
The question remains as to whether Biden can achieve real compromise. Turkey has insisted that it’s already an active part of the coalition against IS but US knows it can simply do a lot more.
Turkey has reservations about supporting Syrian Kurdish forces in Kobane, labelling them as terrorists, while conversely they have become one of the only reliable US partners in the fight against IS.
Talks with Erdogan are likely to be much tenser. Erdogan has shown that Turkish interests come first regardless of any international backlash and he has become somewhat unpredictable in nature, pursuing an independent foreign-policy.
Whilst Erdogan may work with the US it will certainly not bow to any pressure nor is he afraid of any fallout if his demands are not met.
Turkey demands are clear. The US must have a comprehensive strategy that also deals with the removal of Assad. Ironically, the IS emanated from Assad-fuelled Syrian conflict, but the US is far from willing to replace him in the tougher fashion demanded by Ankara.
US has insisted its hands are already full with focus on the removal of IS in Iraq and Syria but for Turkey this is just more foot-dragging from the US believing that the road to defeating IS runs through Damascus.
Unless there is real compromise on the part of the US, Erdogan has already warned that the Turkish position will not change. “From the no-fly zone to the safety zone and training and equipping - all these steps have to be taken now," Erdogan said in mid-week. Before reiterating a common stance «The coalition forces have not taken those steps we asked them for. ... Turkey's position will be the same as it is now."
Without meeting the main Turkish demands, compromise may be small and ineffective. For example, after US officials visited Turkey in recent weeks, there is already an agreement to train and equip approx. 2000 moderate Syrian fighters. Previ- ously, Turkey allowed 150 Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga to cross into Kobane.
None of these are real game-changers when Turkey’s immense military might is at a viewing distance from the Syrian conflict.
US will continue to reach out to Turkey, in reality it has little option but to keep Ankara on-side as they remain key actors even with a growing feeling of animosity and reluctance. No image summed up the downward spiral in relations better than that of three American sailors from the USS Ross been hooded and roughed up by an anti-American mob in Turkey.
In knowledge of the deteriorating relations with the US and the international out-cry at the perceived lack of Turkish action over Kobane and the battle against IS, Turkey has tried hard in recent days to emphasize solid relations with the Kurdistan Region and also a Baghdad who under the rule of Nouri al-Maliki saw increasingly frosty ties with Ankara.
In recent months, there has certainly been a patching-up of ties between Ankara and Baghdad with prospects this week after talks with Davutoglu and Iraqi officials of Turkey training Iraqi forces. Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi is also scheduled to visit Turkey next month to seek further normalisation in ties.
In a recent visit to Erbil, Davutoglu, underscoring the close strategic and economic relations with the Kurdish Region, stressed “Turkey will provide support through any necessary means for the Kurdistan Region’s security”.