Agree to disagree on Syria

Agree to disagree on Syria

U.S. Vice President Biden’s trip has clarified at least the thorny issues on the Syrian debacle. Turkey wants safe-zone; the U.S. wants to operate from İncirlik. These differences are not irreconcilable for now. But they will remain frozen at least for a couple of months. Surprisingly, Biden’s open and sometimes blunt way of diplomacy seemed to have worked with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. And Washington may have found an unlikely partner in Ankara this time.

Davutoğlu’s holistic approach to acute problems in the Middle East may sound too good to be true or too big to fail for some. Yet the U.S. seems to be able to find some maneuvering space in between.

Before Biden’s plane took off from Istanbul, a senior official had said this in a background briefing:

“We are in agreement that that viable force to defeat ISIL on the ground in Syria is not Bashar al-Assad; and instead, is the moderate Syrian opposition, the Free Syrian Army [FSA], and that we need to do more in that space to train and equip. We obviously have our own program. The Turks have signed up to host one of those training bases. But we talked about whether there might be some other ways that we can expand cooperation, grow the moderate Syrian opposition faster and make it more effective.”

According to sources close to the meeting, Biden and Davutoğlu have agreed on the prospects of taking al-Assad out of the political equilibrium. But Turkey’s urgency creates jitters in Washington. The nuclear deal with Iran seems more important and the Obama Administration would do very little to shake the boat for at least several months.

As Iran gets closer to the international scene as a major player, there will be little relevance of al-Assad anymore. Iran may not need him, Russia may not need him. Meanwhile, the U.S. wants Turkey to play a more constructive role empowering the local groups, tribes in the north of Syria. According to U.S. sources, Turkey could be a viable partner for non-Muslim communities and secular groups in Syria and, so far, Ankara has not been very enthusiastic about stepping up to the plate.

The U.S. official’s remarks point to the fact that American and Turkish militaries are going to do more than the politicians:

“We have to stand up a viable ground force in Syria to be able to do that. That’s not the regime. It’s got to be the moderate Syrian opposition. And we need to facilitate a political transition. I think where we still need to get across the goal line in terms of our agreement is how our military-to-military cooperation is going to be synced up in those areas. But that’s not disagreement. I just think that – now that I think we are in a good place about what we’re trying to accomplish, we need to figure out what’s the best way for our militaries to work together to make that happen.”

That is why Davutoğlu’s recent rapprochement toward the Alevi community in Turkey is actually much more than a domestic election step. The West sees this as a small reconciliation effort after the Gezi protests, a sign to the moderates in the Middle East. His ease at referencing Berkin Elvan as a symbol in Tunceli is a clear understanding of not being on the same page with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. And that is worth looking into.

Unlike Erdoğan, Davutoğlu does not shy away from talking favorably about the Turkish Armed Forces.

After his trip to the Peshmerga training facilities in northern Iraq, he referred to the Turkish Special Forces’ expertise in the region not once, but twice in Justice and Development Party (AK Party) meetings. Unlike Erdoğan, Davutoğlu attends many academic and scientific meetings and even gets lost in the philosophical details of them. Unlike Emine Erdoğan, his wife, Sare Davutoğlu, a doctor by profession, rarely speaks in public and does so only when it is relevant to her background.

Biden’s trip represents more than energy or Syria talks. According to observers, Biden has sent a clear signal to all parties, and AK Party heavyweights that the U.S. means business with Davutoğlu. So as the “Palace Guards” in Beştepe look for holes and moles, the White House has made it clear that it sees more eye-to-eye with the Davutoğlu.

Friends can agree to disagree, but that won’t be the end of the relationship.