Erdoğan furious with US, adds al-Assad condition

Erdoğan furious with US, adds al-Assad condition

President Tayyip Erdoğan has added a fourth condition to Turkey’s full cooperation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL): The “regime problem” in Syria. Answering questions from a group of reporters on board the presidential plane returning from Afghanistan on Oct. 18, Erdoğan said he saw the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria as the source of problems there, including ISIL.

“There is nothing more useful [for the situation] than al-Assad’s departure,” he said, adding that he did not accept the “who will come after al-Assad?” question as an answer in his talks with other leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It is not something new that Erdoğan considers the removal of al-Assad as a priority in the fight against ISIL. Both he and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have said before that they want to see “Neither ISIL, nor the al-Assad regime” on the other side of Turkey’s 910-km border with Syria.

But it is a new thing for Erdoğan to list this as a condition for full cooperation against ISIL.

So far, he has listed three conditions:

1)    Imposing safe zones in Syrian territory next to the Turkish border for refugees from Syria (now around 1.5 million in Turkey) and for non-ISIL, native fighters like the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

2)    Imposing a no-fly zone in Syrian air space along the Turkish border above those safe zones for the protection of refugees and the FSA (mainly against Syrian air forces, since ISIL does not yet have an air force).

3)    Training and equipping rebel forces apart from ISIL and other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.

When considered together, the anti-al-Assad stance was there all along. So why did Erdoğan decide to express it openly as a fourth condition now, when talks with the international anti-ISIL coalition, or actually with the U.S. administration, are under way?

The main reason seems to be the direct contact of a U.S. official with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of Syria, closely linked to the Turkey-origin outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, as confirmed on Oct. 16 by Jen Psaki, the spokeswomen for the U.S. State Department.

In the same Q&A with reporters, Erdoğan said the following: “In recent days there is an idea floating around of giving arms to the PYD in order to fight against ISIL. The PYD for us is the same as the PKK and that is a terrorist organization. It would be wrong to expect a ‘yes’ as an answer from us [for full cooperation] if a friendly country and a NATO ally like the U.S. openly admits such support for a terrorist organization.”

Erdoğan had stated on a number of occasions that he considers the PKK to be the same as ISIL, “both of them being terrorist” organizations. The PYD is the main resisting ground force in the town of Kobane (Ayn al-Arab) near the Turkish border, having been under attack from ISIL for more than three weeks now.

Most of the civilian population of the town - around 150,000 people - has already fled to Turkey. The Turkish government is under pressure to open up a corridor for those who want to go there and fight ISIL and for more arms to cross through Turkish territory. The government suspects that most of the fighters would be PKK militants.

The government has been in dialogue with the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, via the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) in pursuit of a political settlement, but is also keeping the PKK on its terrorism list until that settlement finally comes, if it comes. PM Davutoğlu said yesterday that if that dialogue had evolved differently, his government’s stance regarding Kobane could also have been different.

The developments indicate that Turkey is not likely to be in full military cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL, especially when land forces and Turkish territories are involved, unless the “al-Assad condition” is somehow met.

“İncirlik is another issue,” Erdoğan said during the same session with reporters, mentioning the NATO main operation base south of Turkey, near the Syrian border. “We do not exactly know what [the Americans] want from us yet. We can say ‘yes’ if they are up to our needs,” he said, hinting at a limited use of the base for military purposes and perhaps opening up Turkish air space for military operations.