Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Turkey will mark an important turning point in relations between the U.S. and Turkey. The recent disagreement between the two allies regarding the conflicts in Iraq and Syria has turned into a major crisis in relations. The disagreement between the two countries seems very deep due to the difference of opinion over the recent strategy about the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), but when the recent debates within the U.S. are taken into account, it seems that Turkey’s position is not so much different than some of those who criticize the administration’s Syria policy.
One dimension of the crisis is related to the disagreement over the strategy to fight against ISIS. Turkish foreign policy decision makers want to know what the U.S. is trying to achieve in the region and what is “the exit strategy,” if there is one. There are certain reasons why Turkey and some other key U.S. allies are so insistent on finding a solution to deal with President Bashar Assad of Syria and making it a significant dimension of the strategy of the international coalition formed to fight ISIS. Although the clock of the crisis may start ticking for the Western observers with the capture of Mosul by ISIS, for the countries in the region as well as the Syrian opposition, the beginning of the crisis was the regime attacks on the peaceful protesters in Daraa more than three years ago. Since then, they have faced a regime that has committed all forms of human rights violations in the country and cost the lives of almost 200,000 people. A solution to this mayhem has to include not only products of this situation, but also needs to take into account the policies of the regime. Thus a strategy that will bring the region back to the situation before ISIS before the summer of 2013 will not fix the problems in the region and satisfy either Turkey, the Syrian opposition or other U.S. allies. There were more than 100,000 deaths in summer 2013 and people in the region remembers vividly the barrel bombs, SCUD missiles and all the massacres committed by the regime. Thus the absence of ISIS will not bring an end to the violence. Instead of ISIS, the vacuum will be filled by another radical group, and this situation will not bring stability for the region. Because of that, “the day after ISIS” has to be planned carefully and it should include a regime change and starting of a transition to an inclusive government and international assistance for reconstruction of the country.
Second to this, although Ankara’s position on the recent crisis is sometimes portrayed way too differently, it actually overlaps in some aspects with the position of senior officials in Washington. The position as mentioned above asks for a plan that will destroy ISIS but also remove the main reason for its rise in Syria and thus, a revision of the current plan. Although airstrikes have helped to slow ISIS down, it seems impossible to totally eradicate the ISIS threat with the current strategy and operations. This is not only the position of Turkey. In recent weeks it has been more vocally pronounced by former senior officials in Washington as well as by members of the administration. For instance, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, in a recent interview, admitted that the current airstrikes are indirectly helping the Assad regime. Earlier this month, it was reported that Hagel expressed concerns about the operation and asked the administration to form a sharper view about what to do with the Assad regime. Although denied by the President Barack Obama last week, major news outlets also reported a preparation for a revision of the strategy in Syria. Furthermore, a few days ago the former U.S. ambassador in Damascus, Robert Ford, also criticized the current strategy and pointed out Assad’s gains since the beginning of coalition airstrikes. He also underlined the situation in Aleppo, which was in several instances emphasized by foreign policy makers in Turkey.
This article was originally published in the Daily Sabah on November 22, 2014.