ISTANBUL — U.S. Vice President Joe Biden became the latest in a parade of U.S. officials trying to push Turkey to step up its role in the international coalition’s fight against Islamic State extremists.
His visit follows weeks of public bickering between the two NATO allies. The Turkish president insists if the U.S. wants his help, it must focus less on fighting IS militants and more on toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants the U.S.-led coalition to set up a security zone in northern Syria to give moderate fighters a place to recoup and launch attacks.
The U.S. has no appetite to go to war against Assad and has said a no-fly zone against Syria’s air force is a no-go.
Turkey has pledged to train and equip moderate Syrian forces on its soil, but no details have been announced by either side. U.S. and Turkish officials have discussed the coalition’s desire to use Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base for U.S.-led operations against IS militants, but Turkey has made no public decision about Incirlik.
“From the no-fly zone to the safety zone and training and equipping — all these steps have to be taken now,” Erdogan said on Nov. 19. “The coalition forces have not taken those steps we asked them for.”
That’s after a U.S. military delegation spent two days in Ankara last week trying to hammer out details to implement Turkey’s pledge to train and equip moderate fighters and after top U.S. military officials visited Incirlik. And it follows two visits in two months by retired Marine Gen. John Allen, the U.S. envoy for the international coalition.
Allen told the Turkish daily Milliyet in Ankara that fighting extremists in Iraq was the “main effort” right now but it’s not the only effort and “we’ll be doing that in Syria as well.”
“Eventually, of course, our policy intent for the U.S. is that there be a political outcome in Syria that does not include Bashar Assad,” said Allen.
Now it’s Biden’s turn.
Despite the tension between their nations, both Biden and Davutoglu greeted reporters with broad smiles at the prime minister’s working residence in Istanbul.
Biden said the two had known each other — and have been friends — for a long time and can be direct with one another. “Friends don’t let friends wonder about what they’re thinking,” Biden said.
Davutoglu called the U.S a strategic ally and called the two nations’ relationship “deep rooted.” Biden’s visit offered a chance to have a broader discussion on the issues before them, he said.
The obvious compromise would be if Washington shifted its policy on Syria to do more to force out Assad, and Turkey agreed to do more against IS, said James Jeffrey, former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and Iraq who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But Jeffrey is not holding his breath.
“Erdogan is a tough customer to reason with, but Turkey is already a major source of stability and support in region and could be better if we play cards right,” Jeffrey said. “But Erdogan is, at this point, troublingly unpredictable.”
Turkish officials say Turkey is an active partner in the coalition.
Besides pledging to train moderate Syrian forces, Turkey gave Kurdish fighters from Iraq permission to travel through on their way to help Kurdish fighters in the besieged Syrian town of Kobani near Turkey’s border. That was an unprecedented step for Erdogan, but Turkey’s military has not been active regarding the IS advance on the town.
Turkey has good relations with the Kurds in Iraq but views the Kurds in Syria as an extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party. The party has waged a 30-year insurgency against the Turkish government and is designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.
Turkey also is hosting 1.6 million Syrian refugees. Washington acknowledges that Ankara has worked to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Syria, although it’s still easy in some places to move across the border for a price.
U.S. officials also say Turkey has cracked down on oil smugglers. Analysts estimate that the Islamic State group earns up to $3 million a day in revenue from oil fields captured in Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. and Turkey are not in sync about Syria and Biden’s visit follows weeks of misunderstandings and harsh rhetoric from both capitals. Locals in Istanbul have dubbed one flap the “apology-no apology.”
Biden said in a speech that early in the Syrian conflict, Turkey assisted extremists because they were seeking to depose Assad. Erdogan demanded an apology; the White House said Biden called Erdogan to apologize, but Biden said he didn’t.
There was more disagreement over whether Turkey had decided to let the U.S. use Incirlik base for operations against extremists in Syria and Iraq.
Aggravating the tensions, three American sailors from the USS Ross were roughed up by anti-American demonstrators in Istanbul last week.
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