Washington-Ankara: Same Page for Syria and ISIL?

The inability of two NATO allies to get on the same page strategically with respect to Syria has grave consequences for the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). It also aggravates bilateral relations between two countries whose cooperation in a troubled region is essential. Without for a moment dismissing mutual frustrations, is it not time for adult intervention? Is there no one capable of a sustained diplomatic heavy lift to try to get Ankara and Washington to pull in the same direction?

Both sides feel a sense of grievance. Speaking privately, a senior White House official recently articulated strong suspicions and reservations concerning alleged Turkish facilitation of ISIL operations in Syria. A senior Turkish official—also speaking privately—heatedly denied the allegation and suggested that Ankara would cooperate fully with Washington on the ISIL front, provided such cooperation were framed in the context of “a mutually agreed strategy to fix Syria.” The Turk added that US diplomatic tradecraft bewildered Ankara: that the US Central Command had dispatched a senior officer to Ankara to counsel Turkey to “pay no attention” to Presidential Special Envoy John Allen. Now the bilateral relationship is further roiled by US tactical air support for Syrian Kurds of the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

No doubt, Washington and Ankara have differing priorities with respect to ISIL in the Syrian context. Turkey sees ISIL in Syria as the spectacularly gruesome symptom of an underlying disease: the murderous illegitimacy of the Assad regime. Washington does not necessarily disagree on an analytical level. Operationally, however, its strategic focus is on reaching a nuclear accord with Assad’s patron and the principal external facilitator of his criminal conduct: Iran. Turkey wants the United States to push back against the criminality and work with it to protect Syrian civilians from a wanton campaign of mass homicide. The Obama administration—spurred into action by the beheadings of US journalists and leery of offending Iran—wants to concentrate its firepower in Syria exclusively on what the Turks see as the symptom: ISIL.

The Obama administration realizes that it cannot defeat ISIL in Syria by spending the balance of the time allotted to it chasing ISIL in Syria from the air. A ground combat component is needed. The administration has given itself (and its successor) three years to train and equip a 15,000-man Syrian ground force to supplement the air campaign. It wishes to recruit these fighters from the ranks of anti-Assad rebels. The combination of a slow vetting process and an ISIL-centric mission statement has made recruitment problematic. An alternative approach offered in April 2015 by the Atlantic Council has not yet gained White House traction and ISIL is taking advantage of the US strategic vacuity and glacial incrementalism to sink roots in Syria.

Air support for the PYD is the policy equivalent of what soldiers and marines would refer to as a “field expedient.” It makes sense in the narrow context of not having much to work with in Syria in terms of a ground combat component. The Turkish reaction—both officially and in the news media—has not been positive. Although some of the Turkish media commentary has been conspiratorially ludicrous, one wonders if all of the requisite diplomatic due diligence was done prior to a decision being made. After all, even in the ISIL context, Syria is a footnote for Washington. Turkey—even if its leadership sometimes annoys and confounds—is a NATO ally. One need not agree with Ankara’s priorities or tactics in the Syrian or any other context to conclude that the state of this bilateral relationship trumps a tactical arrangement with a Syrian Kurdish militia. This is not about personal feelings and petty annoyances: it is about US national security interests.

In the end, it may not be possible for Ankara on Washington to land on the same page with respect to Syria and ISIL. President Barack Obama’s operational indifference toward the slaughter of Syrian civilians and his deference to Tehran may be immovable. Even if they were movable, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu may be disinclined to do anything in the end beyond pointing fingers of blame at Washington.

Still, Washington and Ankara probably agree on much of the analysis. Assad’s homicidal political survival strategy—directed almost entirely at civilians—is a recruiting gift that keeps on giving for ISIL. Caliph Baghdadi and his criminal cohorts have no political roots in Syria, but given time, they will sink them and will attract more and more Syrians seeking protection from Assad and Iran. Coalition airpower accompanied by professional ground forces from regional states can sweep ISIL from Syria, enable the establishment of a Syrian governmental alternative to Assad, and put ISIL in Iraq on the back foot. Kurdish political aims in Syria can be accommodated in a manner consistent with the PYD’s recent public assurances: by empowered local governance not just for Kurds, but for all Syrians.

Washington and Ankara will each have to give something for their analytical convergence to be translated into strategic, operational consensus. For Washington, it will mean translating empty anti-Assad rhetoric into civilian protection measures and political actions that Iran, sadly but unavoidably, will not like. For Turkey, it will mean near-term military focus on destroying ISIL in its soft Syrian underbelly. In principle, this kind of strategic compromise would not seem to rise to the level of diplomatic nuclear physics. In practice, however, the seriousness of national leaders, the importance they place on an existing alliance, and their determination to find common ground in trying to solve (or at least mitigate) vexing regional problems are all very much in question.

Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu - his former counterpart as Foreign Minister - on the sidelines of a NATO Ministerial Meeting in Antalya, Turkey, on May 13, 2015. {Photo: State Department Photo/Public Domain)