Turkey and US reach compromise
“Knowing what you’ve got, knowing what you need, knowing what you can do without. That’s inventory control.”
This sentence was uttered by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie “Revolutionary Road.”
The recent negotiations between Turkey and the U.S. regarding Syria reminded me of this phrase. The two countries know very well what the problem is and what they need to solve it. Yet, they disagree on what they can do without. While Turkey insists on doing without Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the U.S. has still not totally given up on him.
In my interview with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu two weeks ago, he declared the train-and-equip program had started in Turkey. Accordingly, 300 Syrian rebels arrived in Turkey on May 9 and their training started the following week.
Right after this acknowledgement, Çavuşoğlu said last week that the trained and equipped rebels would need to enter Syria “through a secure area” and that they need to be provided with aerial protection. He also made the remark that Turkey and the U.S. agreed “in principle” on supporting the rebels by air.
There is actually only one piece of news in this recent statement: That the countries agreed “in principle” on air protection.
Ankara has been asking for the establishment of a safe zone in Syria since the very beginning of the Syria conflict and wants the trained and equipped rebels to be deployed in this area. It insists that these rebels would fight against both the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Assad’s forces while U.S. jets patrol this area.
Yet, the U.S. would prefer these rebels fight only against ISIL and avoid any clash with the regime. Hence the foundation of a safe zone gets locked into the question, against al-Assad or not?
After all, agreeing “in principle” implies there is a basic agreement between the two countries, but that the negotiations on their disagreements are proceeding.
Moreover, when I asked Çavuşoğlu about this discord on the train-equip program, he had answered by saying: “Of course at the moment the first and foremost target is ISIL.”
Therefore, Ankara and Washington seem to have found a middle way at last. And this compromise on prioritizing the fight against ISIL might soon get reflected on the foundation of a safe zone as well.
That being said, the reason why the U.S. cannot give up on al-Assad is not only its concern that this might mostly benefit ISIL. Washington increasingly regrets its intervention in Iraq in 2003 since the costs of the Iraq war are gradually rising. Hence the argument that toppling the “secular dictator” Saddam Hussein created ISIL gets more and more vocalized. Therefore, the U.S. is anxious this time about taking down the “secular dictator” in Syria.
Another reason is Iran. With the recent surge of ISIL in both Iraq and Syria, Iran has become militarily much more involved in both countries via the Shiite militia and Hezbollah it backs. Today, the anti-ISIL fight relies almost entirely on Tehran.
And it is the very same Iran which supports al-Assad. Yet, since Tehran also fights against ISIL in Syria, the U.S. shuts its eyes to this dilemma and does not attack al-Assad in order not to take Iran on.
Russia is another factor. Last week U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with President Vladimir Putin in Russia. And right after this visit, last Monday Putin called U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who had just won the British elections. This is worth noting since this was their first conversation on Syria since May 2013. Moreover, the two leaders agreed that the national security advisors of their countries restart talks on Syria.
All this points to increasing cooperation between the U.S. and Russia on Syria, which will certainly push aside their disagreement on al-Assad.
However, on the other hand the pressure on President Barack Obama is rapidly increasing so that he changes U.S.’ Syria policy and becomes more active. It is vocalized more and more loudly in Washington that this requires Turkey’s collaboration and that this, in turn, would need a change in U.S. attitude towards al-Assad.
In short: It is too early to say the last word on what Turkey and the U.S. would give up on. The inventory control in the two countries is still going on.