US-Turkey relations at lowest ebb over Islamic State crisis

Obama administration ‘frustrated’ by Erdogan’s lack of action

President Obama had asked Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdogan to do more when they met  at the September Nato summit in Wales. Photograph: Umit Bektas/Reuters

President Obama had asked Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdogan to do more when they met at the September Nato summit in Wales. Photograph: Umit Bektas/Reuters

 

There will be a special sense of urgency to talks starting in Ankara today between Gen John Allen, President Barack Obama’s special envoy for Syria, and Turkish officials.

If, as expected, the northern Syrian town of Kobani falls to Islamic State fighters (IS, also known as Isis), the Sunni Muslim extremist group will control a 200km strip of the Syrian- Turkish border.

It is particularly galling to the US that Kobani is likely to fall without the Turkish tanks, who have observed the battle, firing a single shot. “The Obama administration is frustrated by what it regards as Turkey’s excuses for not doing more militarily,” the New York Times reported. A senior US official said there was “growing angst about Turkey dragging its feet”, adding, “This isn’t how a Nato ally acts when hell is unfolding a stone’s throw from their border.”

Obama asked President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to do more when they met at last month’s Nato summit in Wales. The US wants Ankara to prevent jihadists, money and black market petrol transiting Turkey, and to put its Incirlik airbase at the disposition of coalition aircraft attacking Isis.

Washington would also like Turkey, which marshals the second largest army in Nato, to send ground troops into the fray – something neither the US, its European allies nor Turkey are willing to do.

Turkish vote

Despite a vote in the Turkish parliament on October 2nd, authorising its army to intervene, Turkey has fulfilled none of the Obama administration’s wishes.

Turkey was included in the 10-nation coalition announced in Wales on September 5th. But when US defence secretary Chuck Hagel travelled to Ankara three days later, he extracted no concrete commitments from Mr Erdogan. Isis was holding 43 Turks from the consulate in Mosul. The Turks said they would do nothing that might endanger their hostages.

That excuse evaporated on September 20th, when Turkey exchanged 180 jihadis for the diplomats. Eleven of the jihadis were European citizens, including three Frenchmen and two Britons. European governments were angry that they were not informed about the deal.

Different US and Turkish priorities are the root of the tension between Ankara and Washington. The “defeat” of Isis remains Mr Obama’s main goal. Mr Erdogan’s objectives are the ousting of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and managing the crisis with Turkey’s 15 million Kurdish minority. For Erdogan, fighting IS is a distant third.

“Erdogan believes that as long as Assad is in power, Isis will thrive,” says Alain Frachon, an editorialist for Le Monde. That belief is shared by the French government, notes Dorothée Schmid, head of the Turkey programme at the French international affairs institute IFRI. Paris shares Ankara’s wish to help the Free Syrian Army, and to establish a safe haven in northern Syria.

Fundamental difference

The use of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) to fight Isis at Kobani is another fundamental difference with Washington. “The Turks don’t like it, because the PYD is an offshoot of the outlawed PKK, and it allegedly maintains links to Assad,” explains Bulent Aliriza, head of the Turkish programme at the CSIS think tank in Washington. “The last thing Ankara wants is a separatist Kurdish canton on its border with Syria.”

US incomprehension of Turkey’s obstinacy is compounded by the fact that Turkey joined the coalition, its parliament authorised the use of Turkish forces against Isis, and Ankara bears some responsibility for the emergence of Isis.

Vice-president Joe Biden told an audience at Harvard last week that Erdogan admitted Turkey had allowed too many foreign fighters to transit Turkey. Erdogan was outraged, and said that if Biden did not apologise, he would be “history”. The White House apologised.

Intense negotiations

Secretary of state John Kerry has held intense negotiations with the Turkish prime minister and foreign minister by telephone, in the run-up to Gen Allen’s trip to Ankara. “Throughout this process, the US has emphasised points of convergence [with Turkey] and minimised divergence,” Aliriza says. “It may well be 2003 all over again.”

This is the worst crisis in US-Turkish relations since 2003, when after months of negotiations, Ankara refused to allow George W Bush’s administration to use Turkey as a launching point for the invasion of Iraq.

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