The only way that Turkey and US can recouple
You must have heard of the famous “Pottery Barn Rule.” It states that in a retail store you are responsible for any damage you cause to the goods on display. In other words: Once you break it, you own it.
This rule was reminded to President George W. Bush by then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell prior to the Iraq invasion. The United States would be responsible, Powell implied, for whatever damage the military incurred during the intervention. The rule that Bush completely turned a deaf ear to has today become the dominant mentality in the U.S. Washington is trying its best to keep its commitments at a minimum in Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. doesn’t have a Syria strategy yet. This was precisely the confession of General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who resigned last week, when they briefed the House of Representatives about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) strategy. They repeated a couple of times: “We don’t have a military solution for Syria.”
Moreover, it is this deadlock that prompted Hagel to resign. When I asked President Barack Obama’s former National Security Advisor James Jones last week what the U.S. would do about Syria, his reply was short and crystal clear: “I don’t know.”
However, even though the U.S. doesn’t know what to do, it definitely knows what it won’t do. The first thing it won’t do is immediately remove Bashar al-Assad. The second is putting boots on the ground.
The foundation of a no-fly zone (NFZ) in Syria, which Turkey has been persistently insisting on, is the intersection of these two points. First of all, an NFZ would forbid al-Assad’s air force from flying inside Syria, which would put the U.S. in the opposite fronts with the regime. This, in turn, would significantly escalate the war and also change the direction of it, making al-Assad the main target.
When I talked to some American high level officials in Istanbul last week, they emphasized that al-Assad has been warned to stay away from the areas where the airstrikes are launched and that he has respected this so far. However, an NFZ would change the whole picture. They also recalled that an NFZ was formed in northern Iraq in 1991 only after Saddam Hussein’s air force had been destroyed. But today, the Syrian regime has a strong air force in western Syria.
Moreover, an NFZ needs to be patrolled not only by air force, but also on the ground, which would demand the deployment of a considerable amount of troops on the ground. This is the second point that the U.S. is decisive about abstaining from.
Hence, Washington wants Turkey to shoulder the burden and send its own troops if it requests an NFZ. In this way, Washington also intends to make Turkey its main partner in Syria. The U.S. has partners in Iraq, namely the new Iraqi government and the Kurds, but it lacks any partners in Syria, (there's no need to mention that the Free Syrian Army is not yet ripe). As a result, Turkey is considered to be the most and only candidate to work with in the region.
However, Ankara refuses to commit any more strongly, unless the U.S. gives firm assurance to oust al-Assad in due course. This is exactly where the deadlock starts and ends.
If Turkey is going to insist on the formation of an NFZ, then the only way to overcome the current impasse seems to be that Ankara makes al-Assad’s fall an issue to deal with later and becomes more immediately engaged. If Ankara assumed military responsibility for a NFZ, the U.S. would be willing to join a joint ground force in Syria. After all, it is the U.S. top military officials themselves who say plainly that they will have to contribute more on the ground at some point.
In short, if Turkey is going to revisit its stance toward al-Assad to overcome this impasse, the U.S. will need to retract its vow of “no boots on the ground.” On top of that, the U.S. cannot afford to stay out of the retail store. It broke a lot of pottery when it intervened in Iraq in 2003, so it already owns today’s broken pieces that were handed down from then.