A few days after U.S. Vice-President Joseph R. Biden’s visit to Istanbul in late November, Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued one of his blatant criticisms of the Obama administration since the beginning of the Syrian war. The president of Turkey said he was “against impertinence, recklessness and endless demands” coming from “12,000 kilometers away.”
Feeding Erdogan’s fury could still be Biden’s revelation a month earlier. The U.S. vice president had told an audience at Harvard University about a conversation he had with the president of Turkey, during which Erdogan allegedly told him Turkey misplayed its hand on Syria by letting “too many people (including foreign fighters) through.” Biden was compelled to apologize.
Countless official declarations and contradictory reports about U.S.-Turkey talks on Syria have marked the last few months. In September, following the 69th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Erdogan called in his usually vehement tone for the establishment of a “no fly-zone” and a “secure zone” for Syrian refugees inside Syria. Erdogan mentioned he had discussed the matter with U.S. President Barak Obama and Biden. Soon after in a press conference in the Pentagon, the U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said enforcing a “buffer zone” in Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq was not an immediate plan but did not dismiss the possibility.
Reluctant to intervene
Throughout October, with ISIS threatening to take over the mainly Kurdish city of Kobane (or Ayn al-Arab) in northern Syria, the Turkish government was naturally reluctant to intervene. The mounting pressure for Turkey to allow the anti-ISIS coalition to use military bases inside Turkey for air strikes against ISIS was met with increasing calls from Turkish officials for the establishment a no-fly zone.
The Turkish government remains far more hawkish than the Obama administration in their efforts to secure a transition in Syria that involves Assad’s departureManuel Almeida
Tensions increased when the U.S. airdropped weapons to the forces of the PYD (Democratic Union Party, considered by Turkey a terrorist organization) fighting ISIS in Kobane in the face of Turkey’s objections. Coming out of the numerous visits of U.S. officials to Turkey was a mutual commitment to the efforts to train and equip the moderate Free Syrian Army, plus Turkey’s permission for Iraqi Peshmerga forces to join the fight against ISIS in Kobane.
Then last week, confusion set in. The week started with American press reporting significant progress on the negotiations between the U.S. and Turkey over a more limited protection or safe zone. Also on Monday, U.S. State department spokesman Jen Psaki told reporters about the talks over proposals put forward by Turkey, but noted the existence of differences and that there was no decision.
On Wednesday, on the sidelines of a meeting in Brussels of the anti-ISIS coalition, Foreign Minister of Turkey Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told journalists that “particularly with the U.S., there is a convergence in our approach toward [ISIS]”, including the “no-fly zone.” Later that day, Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed the news about a decision on “any form of a safe zone or a buffer zone” as premature.
A no-fly zone
The complexity of enforcing a no-fly zone could explain much of the diplomatic back and forth. Yet the different terms being tossed around by Turkish and American officials to describe the operation reflects an expectations gap about the purpose and timing of the intervention. This is unsurprising, considering that the U.S. and Turkey have been at odds in almost every other matter in the region, including Iraq, Kurdistan oil exports and Egypt.
The Turkish government remains far more hawkish than the Obama administration in their efforts to secure a transition in Syria that involves Assad’s departure. For the Obama administration, the priority is to fight ISIS. Critics who see the administration’s position as too cautious ask how the Obama administration expects to defeat ISIS without addressing the root causes of the problem in Syria.
The basic format of the military operation would be an area inside Syria along the border with Turkey, protected from above by U.S. air power and on the ground by Turkish troops. It is a tempting scenario as it would provide a protection zone for Syrian refugees inside Syria and a safe entering point for humanitarian aid into Syria. It would also offer the Free Syrian Army a refuge where they can be trained and supplied, although it would certainly not go as far as Aleppo in the northwest.
There are at least three major concerns for the U.S. government about a protection zone. To implement it, the Syria regime’s air defense systems and even its aircraft and airfields might have to be destroyed, despite some recent reports about their degraded status. This would amount to a declaration of war and a blow to the strategy of de-escalating the conflict through localized freezes in the combats, with the danger of prolonged direct involvement.
Justifying the intervention
Another worry is how to justify the intervention. Ironically, the Assad regime is still seen as the sovereign government of Syria in the U.N.. Turkey seems prepared to invoke self-defense under article 51 of the U.N. charter, as the Iraqi government did to pave the way for the air strikes against ISIS. However, fighting ISIS in Iraq has proved far less contentious than the intricate Syrian conflict and Turkey’s request will face opposition because of the obvious intention to undermine Assad.
Then there is the consequence of escalating tensions. The concern might not be so much the Assad regime itself, given that the U.S. is already training and arming Syrian opposition in Turkey and various Arab countries. The risk is of driving a wedge between the U.S. and the Syrian regime’s main sponsors and protectors, Iran and Russia. The Obama administration still believes Iranian and Russian collaboration will be needed if a political solution to the conflict is ever to be found.
With the extension of the talks on Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration is focused on not upsetting the Iranians to avoid giving hardliners in Iran a chance to spoil a potential deal. In the minds of U.S. government officials, it seems that the no-fly zone in Syria is subordinate to the nuclear talks.
Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant focusing on the Middle East and emerging markets. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science, and is the former editor of the English edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.SHOW MORE