AKP’s Syrian priorities remain confused

AKP’s Syrian priorities remain confused

The report by McClatchy, the U.S. publishing company, alleging that Turkish intelligence tipped off the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, and led to the recent routing by the group of opposition forces trained in Turkey by the U.S., has seriously ruffled Ankara’s feathers.

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Tanju Bilgic said the report was an “ill-intentioned and lowly slander.”

Washington, for its part, says it has no information to corroborate the claim. Given the “fog of war” along Turkey’s borders with Syria, the truth of the matter may not surface for some time - if ever.

What is crucial here, though, is that this report, even if false, indicates that the AKP administration of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is still under suspicion concerning its commitment to the fight against radical Islamic groups in Syria. In other words, its decision to allow the U.S.-led coalition to use İncirlik and other military bases in Turkey against the Islamist State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has not done away with these suspicions.

While the McClatchy report is speculative, to say the least, what was not so ambiguous was the recent statement by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who said last week that that even after granting the U.S. military permission to use its bases against ISIL, the Turkish government had to “do more” in the fight against this group.

Following some minor retaliatory strikes against ISIL, which was the least it could do given the public outcry after the Suruç massacre by the group on July 20, the Turkish military appears to have stayed its hand. Instead, it has concentrated its energies on bombing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets in Northern Iraq.

This has played into the hands of those who claim that Turkey only joined the fight against ISIL as a cover for strikes against the PKK, using the argument that it is against all forms of terrorism. The relationship between the domestic political situation and the rekindled fight against the PKK, which also involves an active campaign of vilification against the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has been commented on for weeks, so there is no need to repeat it here.

The fact is that Ankara and Washington still do not fully see eye to eye on who the priority target in the region is currently. For the U.S. and its allies it is ISIL, and this remains the measure of Turkey’s sincerity for them and the Western media. Statements out of Washington on Tuesday suggested that Turkey will start active and visible strikes against ISIL soon.

There has been so much conjecture about the Turkish-U.S. relationship with regards Syria, inflamed by statements out of Ankara that were later denied politely by Washington, that all such reports are being taken with a pinch of salt. It is not surprising, therefore, that many should be maintaining a “believe it when you see it” stance in this regard.

Bashar al-Assad is also cashing in on the inconsistency in statements out of Ankara and Washington, especially about an alleged agreement between Turkey and the U.S. for setting up a safe haven, or secure zone, in northern Syria. He was reported by the Turkish media on Wednesday telling Hezbollah’s al-Manar television network in Lebanon that the U.S. does not trust Turkey. 

Given the negative reports in the U.S. press against Turkey, and statements such as the one by Carter, such claims are clearly not made in a vacuum. Until the AKP demonstrates its full commitment against ISIL, and similar groups, not just in words but also in deeds, it appears that doubts about Ankara’s true priorities will remain - as will allegations about AKP sympathy for some radical Islamic groups in Syria. 

Turkey has to get its priorities right if it wants to be convincing, and, much more importantly, if it wants to have a real say over developments in Syria.