A year ago the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, responding to a question on Turkish-American relations said that Turkey and the U.S. agree on the larger strategy but may differ in tactics. This statement could explain the nature of Turkish-American relations a year ago, especially regarding the crisis in Syria. The leaders of both countries said around the same time in 2011 that Bashar Assad has to step down and both governments denounced the mass killings and use of force by Assad’s forces. Since then, the meeting of positions on the Syrian crisis in 2011 had been replaced by a rhetorical convergence, strategic ambivalence and tactical divergence.
The gradual escalation of the extent of force used by the Assad regime in the last three years and the different reactions to these attacks from both sides contributed to divergences and ambivalence. During this period, there was a rhetorical convergence where both sides denounced the attacks and the strategies on both sides were thought to be based on the same premises, however, the tactical difference started to emerge of how to achieve the desired outcome.
The use of chemical weapons and the U.S. action after it led to a major break in U.S.-Turkey relations on Syria. There were again harsh statements and condemnation from both sides for the Syrian regime. The rhetoric did not diverge. However, after the U.S. decision not to attack the Syrian regime, questions and skepticism started to emerge about the U.S. strategy in Syria. And this was not something particular to Turkey. Various U.S. allies from different parts of the world that pledged their support for a potential U.S. operation to sanction a regime that used chemical weapons against civilians felt the same ambivalence. In the meantime, the tactical divergence between Turkey and the U.S. rose rapidly after these attacks.
Three years after the initial statements on the Syrian regime, Turkey and the U.S. are facing another major test since the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in the region and especially its capture of Mosul, Iraq. A major disagreement emerged after the announcement of the strategy of the international coalition to disable and exterminate ISIS. Rhetoric in both Turkey and the U.S. were similar. Both recognized ISIS as a terrorist organization that needs to be eradicated from the region. However a major disagreement started to emerge about how to deal with it. Turkey recognized ISIS as an outcome of the situation in Iraq and Syria and the solution for ISIS had to be a comprehensive one that has an exit strategy. The international coalition would leave the region after the operations but Turkey and the other countries in the region have to deal with the fallout from the operation. Particularly concerning for Turkey was the lack of any mention on how to deal with the Assad regime that continues bombing city centers in Syria. However, the U.S. administration approached ISIS as a main cause of the mayhem in Iraq and, in part, in Syria. It was realized that ISIS, which was previously considered as a “JV team,” was a distant threat has become an immediate threat for the U.S. and some other western European countries after they saw beheadings and the number of foreign fighters that ISIS is attracting to the region. To degrade and eradicate the organization was deemed necessary for international security. This goal has priority over toppling the Assad regime. This disagreement over whether ISIS is the reason or outcome of the mayhem in the region led to a short crisis in relations.
With the crisis in Kobani, now bilateral relations are facing another major test. Despite significant differences between the positions of the Ankara and Washington, the constant communication between high level officials was important for the stability of relations during the crisis. However, the mixed signals and conflicting statements from Washington led to a significant problem. The rhetorical convergence of high level officials was interrupted by the statements of anonymous senior officials that gave statements critical of Turkey. Again, conflicting statements from different members of the U.S. administration on Ankara’s demand for a safe zone, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s statements about Turkey’s position on Iraq and Syria that caused him to apologize and the statements on the use of the İncirlik military base by U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, which was denied by Ankara, all contributed to this confusion in recent days.
There is also an increasing ambivalence in terms of strategy. Two weeks ago Kerry said that saving Kobani is not a strategic priority of the fight against ISIS and two weeks later said it has become an operational priority for the US. While ISIS is approaching Baghdad, most of the U.S. airstrikes are taking place around Kobani.
This situation is confusing Ankara about the U.S. strategy in the region. After frequent meetings between Turkish and U.S. officials and conversations between the leaders in the last two weeks, it will be interesting to see the outcomes of these meetings and whether there will be any sort of convergence in policies on ISIS and Syria. But probably one of the most challenging tasks of new the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, John Bass, will be to handle these mixed messages.
This article was originally published in Daily Sabah on October 23, 2014.