A crucial week ahead for Syria, Turkey and the West

A crucial week ahead for Syria, Turkey and the West

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to meet Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in Istanbul tomorrow, Jan. 23, to discuss a wide range of regional issues, with a heavy focus on the Syrian civil war and the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The timing of the meeting is important, as it is taking place right after a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Rome on Jan. 20. There is also the Syria conference, which is currently planned for Jan. 25, though as of the evening of Jan. 21 it was not clear whether there would be a delay in the long-awaited talks.

One of the reasons for the uncertainty is whether Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) will participate in this conference. The PYD is a sister organization of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which has been waging an armed campaign against Ankara since 1984 in which more than 40,000 people have been killed. Underlining that his government considered the PYD no different than the PKK (recognized as a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and the EU), Prime Minister Davutoğlu said in Davos during the World Economic Forum that if the PYD was a participant in the Syria conference, its place must be with the Bashar al-Assad government, not with the opposition forces, as the PYD’s militia are collaborating with the al-Assad regime.

Answering questions on behalf of the government in parliament on Jan. 21, Turkish Education Minister Nabi Avcı said the PYD and Russian military personnel have been working together with regime forces in areas under al-Assad’s control against al-Assad’s opponents.

The PYD has also been working in cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition forces against ISIL, mainly as a ground support unit for the U.S.-led air strikes that use Turkey’s strategic İncirlik air base. 

The İncirlik base was the stage for an important meeting on Jan. 21, a few hours before Biden’s arrival in Istanbul, between German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and Turkish Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz, who both underlined a joint will to fight against ISIL terrorism. 

İncirlik has been hosting German Tornado jets contributing to air operations against ISIL in Syria, together with British and French air forces. Turkish jets have been unable to actively take part in operations within Syria’s air space since a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 jet that crossed the Syrian-Turkish border on Nov. 24. Russia reinforced its presence in Syria after the downing, demanding that Turkey not violate Syrian air space. The fallout of the incident is still ongoing.

Von der Leyen is now going back to Berlin to attend another important meeting with Yılmaz, while also joining German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Davutoğlu, and the foreign and interior ministers of both countries. This high-level security meeting between the Turkish and German governments was planned after a suicide bomb attack in Istanbul by a Syrian ISIL militant in Istanbul on Jan. 12 that killed 10 German tourists.

Both the U.S. and the EU have given strong support to Ankara in its ongoing fight against the PKK in Turkey’s east and southeast, where the PKK adopted a new strategy of forming pockets of “liberated” or autonomous zones, like those created in the northern Syrian town of Kobane. What is expected from Ankara in return is better cooperation regarding the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe and stepping up the fight against ISIL.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan said on Jan. 20 that there would be no step back in the fight against the PKK, which he sees the PYD as an extension of.

As Biden arrives in Turkey, other items in his folio include the nuclear deal with Iran, the Iran-Saudi rift, the crisis with Russia (including Ukraine), and Cyprus, which holds a key importance in Turkey’s relations with the EU.

But the PYD issue is likely to be the most troublesome point in Biden’s talks in Istanbul, as it may affect the fate of the Syria talks as well as the U.S.’s relations with Russia.