US Secretary Kerry in Turkey after aid vow to Syria rebels

US Secretary Kerry in Turkey after aid vow to Syria rebels

US Secretary Kerry in Turkey after aid vow to Syria rebels

US Secretary Kerry holds (L) talks with Syrian opposition leader al-Khatib next to Turkish FM Davutoğlu and Qatari PM al-Thani (R) at a Syrian meeting in Rome.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will arrive today in Ankara as part of his first trip aboard as Washington’s top diplomat with Syria likely to dominate the agenda after he pledged millions in “non-lethal” aid to Syrian rebels yesterday.

“The U.S. will be providing an additional $60 million in non-lethal assistance to support the efforts of the Syrian opposition coalition over the coming months,” he said yesterday after a Friends of Syria meeting in Rome.

 “We will be sending medical supplies and food to the [rebel] Supreme Military Council; so there will be direct assistance,” he said, adding that the goal was to give a boost to the opposition and show Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he could not use violence to resolve the conflict. “This is the beginning of the process that will change [al-Assad’s] calculations.”

Kerry will hold talks with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, although it is not clear whether the talks will help the two NATO allies narrow their differences on Syria.

While Ankara has been aggressive in its policy toward Syria and is not eager to consider the continuation of al-Assad’s government – even as a transitional administration –Washington is notably hesitant toward a decisive move against al-Assad. Washington appears to prefer seeing the government fall without intervening in the situation via further help or support to the opposition.

Kerry’s visit to Ankara is part of a tour which is taking him to nine countries in Western Europe and the Middle East. In Rome, both Kerry and Davutoğlu participated in a Friends of Syria conference. While in the Italian capital, both of them held separate bilateral talks with the head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Mouaz al-Khatib.

Just a few days ago, noting that Syria would be an issue during Kerry’s visit, Erdoğan expressed his pessimism saying: “[The U.S.] has not assumed responsibility yet. What we can discuss about and to what extent?”

A U.S. State Department official said the $60 million in aid would be used to help local councils and communities in liberated areas in Syria, to provide basic goods and services and “fulfill administrative functions including security, sanitation and education services.”

‘A contradictory situation’ regarding Iraqi Kurds

Turkey’s cooperation with the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) despite Baghdad’s objection is likely to be another hot potato during the visit.

According to remarks by Iraqi Oil Minister Abdul Kareem Luaibi delivered earlier this week, Turkey has told Iraq it will reject any extension of oil and gas pipelines from the KRG without the approval of the Baghdad government. Yet, despite insistent questions, Turkish Energy Ministry Taner Yıldız declined to comment on Luaibi’s statement.

Ankara’s unease over U.S. objections to its energy cooperation with the KRG was most recently expressed by Gül. “There is such a contradictory situation; in the past, when our relations were not good with Kurds in Iraq, with northern Iraq, our friends and allies used to tell us: ‘Please be good with them.’ Now while we are having good relations with them, I notice a little bit unease,” Gül said Feb. 27.

Counterterrorism and the judicial system

The president was referring to a period a few years ago when relations between Turkey and the KRG were extremely tense due to the former’s complaint that the regional administration was willingly harboring members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The ongoing fight with the PKK, as well as the recent efforts to convince the PKK to lay down its arms, might also be on the agenda of Kerry’s talks.

Joint counterterrorism efforts could also be discussed in the wake of the Feb. 1 suicide bomb attack at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. The attack which took place on the last day of Kerry’s predecessor’s tenure and was carried out by an outlawed leftist group, the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C), killed Turkish security guard Mustafa Akarsu.

In early February, after U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone criticized the Turkish judicial system and sparked a harsh reaction from Turkish politicians, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said, “Ambassador Ricciardone was simply repeating what Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton had said, and what I’m sure Secretary Kerry will say when he has a chance to speak publicly on these things.”

Whether Kerry will dwell upon this issue and whether he will do it publicly or behind the scenes is a matter of curiosity.