Backstage at the coalition negotiations between Turkey and the US

Backstage at the coalition negotiations between Turkey and the US

Negotiations between Turkey and the U.S. with regard to the anti-ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) coalition have reached a deadlock due to the wide gap between the two countries.

Last week I had the opportunity to meet various high-level officials in Ankara to find the answers to the following questions: What do Turkey and the U.S. expect from each other? Why have negotiations reached an impasse?

First of all: The “train and equip" program. Last week it was reported that Turkey and the U.S. were just about to finalize an agreement on equipping and training moderate Syrian rebels.

Yet there are three main disagreements about this program. The first is about “who the rebels will fight against.” The U.S. specifies ISIL as the main target, while Turkey seeks to name Bashar al-Assad as well. In order to overcome this problem, it looks like the two countries have found a formula: Leave the question out of the agreement.

Another problem centers on the definition of “who these rebels are.” The U.S. wants to specify the rebels themselves, by selecting those whom it finds reliable. Turkey, on the other hand, wants all of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) militants to be included in the program, thereby also raising the number of rebels. Turkish officials say they have already wasted too much time on this discussion.

The “equip” part is also problematic. Washington is concerned that the rebels might direct the arms provided towards the U.S. in due course. Hence, it doesn’t want to equip them with quality heavy arms. Moreover, Ankara also doesn’t want to “waste” time with training the rebels. According to officials, the FSA has gained enough experience on the field over the last three years.

Yet despite all of these disagreements, the program is set to begin at the end of March 2015.

In general, the program is composed of four main pillars: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar. Each country will select the Syrian rebels following its own vetting process. Turkey will annually host 1,500-2,000 rebels for three years. However, the duration of the program might be extended. The training will be implemented jointly by Turkey and the U.S., while the four-pillar program will be under U.S. coordination overall.

The second issue is the foundation of a no-fly zone (NFZ) in Syria, which Turkey has persistently insisted on since the beginning of the war. However, the U.S. is reluctant to become engaged in a NFZ, as this would put Washington on opposite fronts with the Syrian regime and therefore carry the risk of escalating the war.

However, Turkish officials remind that al-Assad has so far stayed away from the areas where U.S. airstrikes have been launched, and that the same arrangement could be made for a NFZ. In addition, they emphasize that it would take only one day to destroy al-Assad’s air force, which is predominantly based in western Syria, adding that U.S. officials themselves have admitted as much.

According to Ankara, the U.S. uses all of these reasons only as an excuse to avoid becoming more engaged in the war.

So, why does Turkey not establish a NFZ by itself? Officials reply that this is an international issue and, as such, needs to be dealt with by an international force, not only with the aim of sharing resources but also out of political necessity. Furthermore, Ankara does not want to find itself in the midst of a war on its own if one of its soldiers gets shot.

Turkish officials underline that they are “ready to do anything” if the U.S. establishes a NFZ and takes the lead on the ground. By this they mean joining the air and ground operation and taking command of the FSA. They specifically emphasize that they are not blackmailing. On the contrary, they accuse the U.S. of blackmailing by saying it will not put boots on the ground.

What about al-Assad? One of the top officials says a NFZ would change the balance of power on the ground and therefore diminish al-Assad’s support. This, in turn, would naturally start the "democratization process" in Syria and solve the issue with al-Assad in due course.

Does Ankara permit the U.S. to use the Incirlik airbase near the Turkey-Syria border? Previously it was reported that the İncirlik base is available for humanitarian and logistical use. This time I was informed that the base is also open for emergency and obligatory landing of U.S. planes.

Last but not least: Has the U.S. asked Turkey for troops? Officials say the U.S. has not explicitly asked Ankara either for soldiers or for planes. 

Apparently, Turkey is ready to fulfill Washington’s expectations. However, it wants to do so not by passively playing the role it has been assigned. Rather, it wants to become an active partner in planning the operation.

And, against all odds, the conversation ends each time with the following sentence: “One way or another, we’ll find a middle ground.”