The unhappy marriage of Ankara and Washington

The unhappy marriage of Ankara and Washington

While I was looking for a place for myself at the breakfast hall to listen to retired General John Allen at the Halifax International Security Forum, I came across my acquaintance, an Afghan media magnate. He said to me:“I was with General Allen last night at dinner. You will notice that when you listen to him; he is a special person, very different from many American officials.”

One night before, about 300 participants of the forum split into groups of 10-15 at restaurants across Halifax, discussing international affairs.

The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) former Çankırı deputy Suat Kınıkoğlu and I coincidentally chose the same debate group, named “Political Islam?” Kınıkoğlu has a real “think tank” background, including German Marshall Fund, Stratim and the Center for American Progress.

While we rushed to find our group “Political Islam?” we asked another participant, Turkey’s 11th President Abdullah Gül, whether he was coming. He was having dinner with another group on the theme “energy.”

We had a colorful and lively debate that evening, but I think no meeting in Halifax could be as interesting as Allen’s presentation on Sunday morning.

Allen is the special presidential envoy for the coalition to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). His task is to bring together 60 countries, coordinate them and conduct a military operation against ISIL; in short, “to defeat ISIL.”

The impression Allen gives is that he is the perfect person for this job. As soon as he starts talking, one can understand that he is a very “civilian minded” soldier.

In his presentation, he naturally mentioned Turkey. He arrived in Halifax from Turkey. He said Turkey’s importance regarding Syria could never be exaggerated, but added that the Turkish officials he met were extremely shy about the fight against ISIL. He also said that because of the enormous influx of refugees from Syria, Turkey should be approached with sympathy.

I had the impression that his stance toward Turkey was one that would go, “whatever we can get” and he was careful not to offend any of the countries, that having any country on their side was better them having them on the other side.

He said that when he started talking with Turks, one shouldn't start with maximalist demands or pre-requisites. I was able to ask him a few questions, such as what maximalist demands or pre-requisites he had in mind.

For instance, he said, insisting on a no-fly zone or approaching the topic such as “if you meet our demands, we might think of opening the İncirlik [base].”

I asked General Allen, who is the best person to know the difference between taking off from the Gulf, refueling in the air and arriving at the north of Syria for an air operation and doing it from the İncirlik base: “Where do you stand on the İncirlik topic?”

He smiled, “Let’s not go there; I cannot go into details.” İncirlik, obviously, is a “delicate” subject.
But he said the meeting between Vice President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, as well as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was “perfect.”

The Istanbul datelined story on the Washington Post I read on the way back home also reflected the same “frequency.” This story was titled, “Biden visit mends fences as Turkey, U.S. seek strategy for Syria, Islamic State.”

The story started with the paragraph: “After an extended period of public estrangement and sniping, the United States and Turkey have made up and say they are heading toward close cooperation on defeating the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and eventually seeing the end of the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.” Two paragraphs later, it said “The visit did not result in any firm new agreements.”

A correct assessment of this obvious “conflict” came from columnist Murat Yetkin the same day: The U.S. and Turkey agreed on the fight against ISIL in Iraq and are close to cooperation; in Syria, on the other hand, they are as distant from each other as they have always been.

Obviously, the AKP government does not want to lose its only ally in the region, Arbil, and does not want to totally contradict the U.S.

Meanwhile, we also talked about Kobane with Allen. He said the “corridor” opened through Turkish soil between Kobane and Iraqi Kurdistan was not just “one-time only.”

Also, his statistics were just the opposite of what the Democratic Union Party (PYD) says. He said 60 percent of Kobane was in ISIL’s hands, but he was not concerned. “The situation there has become stable. It is not possible for ISIL to win anymore. We land on their top there every day. We will destroy and impale ISIL in Kobane or force them to leave. It will be a strategic defeat on their behalf,” he said.

So, will the paths of Turkey and the U.S. cross in Syria, or will they drift further apart?

There is no answer to this question now, because the sides, even though they are trying to keep the marriage afloat, cannot hide their “unhappy marriage.”