US wants Turkey’s boots on the ground

US wants Turkey’s boots on the ground

Turkey has been hosting three key Americans over the last three days. One is Vice President Joe Biden. The second is John Allen, the U.S. Special Envoy for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) strategy. The third is General James Jones, the U.S.’s former National Security Adviser and currently the chairman of the American-Turkish Council. General Jones is in Istanbul to attend the Atlantic Council Summit, where Biden is also giving a speech.

I had the chance to have a one-hour tete-a-tete conversation with General Jones and ask him the key questions in my mind.

First of all, why does Washington not make a commitment that Bashar al-Assad must go? Does it not want to topple him anymore? “No” Jones replied. “Our objectives with Turkey are the same. We both want to see al-Assad leave, ISIL to be defeated and Iraq to survive as a unified country. Those objectives are clear and common. We are now working on how we get to those objectives.”

Jones continued: “As long as both sides think the relationship is essential, they will find the path to accommodate. Since they agree on the objectives, they will agree on the methods as well. That we have different views right now doesn’t mean that in six months from now we won’t find accommodation.”

He also engaged in some self-criticism of the U.S.’s Syria policy. “When al-Assad crossed the red line [referring to al-Assad's use of chemical weapons], we should have taken stronger action. Then ISIL would not have grown this much. The message then transmitted to the region and Russia was very unfortunate. Had we acted then with Turkey, Turkey’s refugee problem would not be this big. And the Free Syrian Army [FSA] would be stronger. For a lot of reasons that was a mistake," he said.

What is the method the U.S. suggests today with regard to Syria? “To expel ISIL, you have to be completely engaged. Not just with airpower, but also on the ground. You can’t solve ISIL and al-Assad without Syria’s boots on the ground. You have to have commitment from Syrians themselves, because on a strategic level to affect change in a country you have to have support of its own people and military. But larger organizations like NATO and neighbor countries also need to join. Ultimately you have to do it," Jones said.

So, I asked whether Biden and Allen are trying to convince Turkey right now to put its forces on the ground. Jones’ reply was quite striking “It would be inconceivable to me if Vice President Biden comes here and does not talk about that," he said.

So is this the reason why the U.S. isn’t accepting Turkey’s demand for a no-fly zone in Syria? In other words, does the U.S. want Turkish soldiers to be deployed instead of its own? Jones responded: “To be perfectly honest with you, the American public is tired of wars, as well as fighting other peoples’ wars. Why would it have to be our ground troops?” So would the U.S. accept a no-fly zone if Turkey accepts sending its own soldiers? “The U.S. would welcome anything Turkey would want to contribute militarily,” he said.

When I asked Jones about the reciprocal statements made by both countries’ officials on the matter of the no-fly zone, he said: “I think people talk too much. They broadcast what they will or won’t do. However six months later you might wish you hadn’t said that. You should not telegraph your intentions, especially to your enemies. You should speak softly, but act very decisively.”

Jones thinks the U.S. will need to contribute more on the ground at some point. “In order to be successful, we have to do more than we are doing now. Now we have 3,000 soldiers in Iraq as advisors. We are taking a step by step approach. This is safe but longer. Next level could be Special Forces for special missions. And then the next one would be conventional forces. Biden is in Turkey. There is military to military level talk. This is an evolutionary process,” he said.

What is the status of bilateral relations between Ankara and Washington? “This is a central relationship. It is not something you can just turn on and off. It is essential and long-lasting,” Jones said. He told me that in his meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the previous day, Erdoğan was very sincere about closer ties on a broader, multi-dimensional scale. “At a time when there is so much trouble in the region, they will find the path to be strategically aligned,” he said.

Last but not least, Jones added: “When Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was chief advisor of President Erdoğan, I was Obama’s national security advisor. We talked all the time. We met all the time.” Does this mean that this is not the case anymore? He replied simply: “I know that my successors in Washington very much want to find a common path with Turkey.”