The Skeptics

Biden in Turkey, Turkey in Syria

Turkish-American relations have a surreal quality. In public the pendulum often seems to swing from one extreme to the other, from friendliness to animosity. However, this swing of the pendulum makes very little difference to the strategic relationship cultivated by the two NATO allies for the past sixty-five years.

Two events this week bear out the validity of this conclusion. First, Vice President Biden’s visit to Turkey and accompanying statements by him and his Turkish interlocutors demonstrate the solidity of the relationship. In a joint press conference with President Erdogan, Biden reaffirmed America’s commitment to the two strategic Turkish objectives vis-à-vis Syria, namely, the preservation of the territorial integrity of that country (a direct blow to Kurdish aspirations for autonomy leading to independence) and the refusal to accept a Syrian Kurdish presence on the western side of the Euphrates river on Turkey’s borders.

Second, hours before the Vice-President’s arrival, a coordinated Turkish-American attack was launched by Turkish ground and air forces and American aircraft to eliminate the ISIS presence in Jarabulus on the western side of the Euphrates coveted by the Kurdish PYD, who are also allies of the US in its fight against ISIS. The Turkish advance was accompanied by shelling of Kurdish positions near Manbij, forty kilometers south of Jarabulus, leading to the PYD’s announcement that its military wing known as the YPG was withdrawing from Manbij.

The Turkish military foray into Syria had two important objectives. Now that Ankara after several terrorist bombings has come to consider ISIS as a mortal threat to Turkey, the first was the removal of ISIS presence close to the Turkish border to prevent further infiltration of ISIS terrorists into Turkey. The second objective, equally if not more important, was to prevent the PYD/YPG’s imminent capture of Jarabulus and roll back recent Kurdish advances close to the Turkish border. American collaboration in this Turkish military campaign was not so much a signal of coordination between the two countries against ISIS as it was a clear message to the Syrian Kurdish leadership: if forced to choose between the PYD and Ankara, Washington will invariably choose to side with its NATO ally.

These moves seem to belie the recent anti-American rhetoric emanating from many quarters, including government spokesmen, in Turkey following the rather lukewarm and delayed support accorded to the Turkish government by Washington and its European allies after the failed coup. The perception in some quarters in Turkey that the restrained Euro-American support to the government was an indication that the European Union and the United States would have welcomed Erdogan’s overthrow led to some remarkably intemperate statements from Ankara, including the one by presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin that “Had the coup succeeded, you would have supported it, like in Egypt. You don’t know this nation, but they know you.”

The American and European stance stood out in stark contrast to the immediate and enthusiastic support offered by Iran and Russia to the Erdogan government. Moscow and Tehran’s backing came despite their differences with the Ankara, especially over Syria and the future of President Assad. It is true that the coup attempt caught the Western chanceries, including Washington, flat-footed. Furthermore, the overreaction of the Turkish government—detaining thousands of people and firing thousands more—gave the impression that this may have been an inside job to provide Erdogan with the excuse to further his dictatorial ambitions. The Western media overplayed this concern and thus put the United States and the EU on guard against supporting Erdogan unequivocally.

The Iranians and the Russians were not concerned much with Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies and wanted to capitalize on the flexibility that his government had begun to show on the Syrian issue. Moreover, Iran was interested in cooperating with Turkey both to prevent the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish entity in Syria and to root out ISIS presence from Syria and Iraq. It also suited Erdogan to exploit Iranian and Russian support to demonstrate to Turkey’s NATO allies that he was not without friends in his hour of need.

However, in the final analysis it has become clear that Washington and NATO could not afford to lose Turkey, and Turkey did not have the luxury to break away from the Western alliance and its strategic relationship with the United States. NATO’s Incirlik airbase in Turkey is a principal facility used by American and allied aircraft for their mission to degrade ISIS facilities. Incirlik served as a major base of operations in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well. With the United States embroiled in multiple potential arenas of conflict in the Middle East, the importance of Incirlik to American strategy cannot be understated.