Biden tries to reassure Ankara but a new problem emerges
Washington - US Vice-President Joe Biden visited Ankara to repair ties with Turkey but he failed to remove major stumbling blocks even as a new source of stress emerged when Turkey launched a military intervention in Syria.
Biden sparred with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on live television about a Muslim cleric in the United States who is wanted for treason in Turkey. The exchange came as Turkish tanks and troops entered Syria in an operation directed against both the Islamic State’s last foothold on the Turkish border in the town of Jarabulus as well as the advance of a Syrian-Kurdish group closely allied with the United States in the fight against the terror group.
Biden, who said the people of Turkey “have no greater friend than the people of the United States of America”, toured the parliament building in Ankara, which was damaged during July’s attempted coup. He voiced regret for not having visited Turkey earlier.
Washington signalled support for Turkey’s intervention in Syria, even if it was in part directed against US allies, and US officials said they had provided Turkey with intelligence and air cover.
Biden’s visit came after Turkish government officials had accused the United States of being behind the coup attempt, a charge Washington strongly denies. Relations also have been rocked by Ankara’s anger over Washington’s refusal to immediately extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania who Ankara claims led the coup plotters.
Biden said the extradition decision rests with the US court system, not with Washington but Erdogan was not convinced. Speaking on live television with Biden sitting next to him, Erdogan said the United States should at least detain Gulen pending extradition. Biden replied that according to US judicial procedures: “You can’t just point to someone and say, ‘This is a bad guy.’”
If the goal of Biden’s August 24th visit was, in the words of a senior US official travelling with the vice-president, to get relations “back on track”, early indications are that the mission failed. “Biden wasted a trip, Turkey wasted time,” opined an editorial in the pro-Erdogan newspaper Daily Sabah.
The two allies were closer on the issue of Syria, although tensions remain there as well. Biden told Erdogan that Washington would pressure the Syrian Kurds to withdraw their forces east of the Euphrates after their recent gains in Manbij, west of the river.
Turkey is concerned that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), aim to extend their territory along the Turkish border to unite areas under their control. This would result in a solid Kurdish-controlled area along the border that would cut Turkey off from the rest of the Middle East and could form the nucleus of an independent Kurdish state.
Ankara has long said that such a move by the PYD and the YPG — offshoots of the Turkish-Kurdish rebel group Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — would be a “red line” triggering government action.
Some say that action has begun. Mensur Akgun, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Kultur Universitesi, said the objectives of the Jarabulus operation were to drive the Islamic State (ISIS) out of the area, prevent advances by the PYD and secure “a bigger say in decisions about Syria’s future”.
Quoting unnamed sources, the CNN Turk news channel said Turkey would establish a security corridor on Syrian territory stretching from Jarabulus to Marea, about 70km to the west. Turkish Interior Minister Efkan Ala said the cross-border operation would continue until the threat of missile attacks on Turkish territory had ceased.
Selim Koru, a Turkish analyst, said on Twitter that the Jarabulus operation might be the beginning of a more permanent Turkish military presence in Syria. He posted a map showing a possible “safe zone” in northern Syria to be controlled by Turkish forces or pro-Turkish rebel groups. “Turkey has been calling for a safe zone for years,” he wrote.
A Turkish-controlled zone inside Syria would further complicate the Syria conflagration and almost certainly lead to new tensions between Ankara and Washington, which has rejected Turkish calls to set up such a zone with international troops. Russia expressed concern about the Turkish incursion, which the Syrian government slammed as a violation of its sovereignty.
The prospect of a Turkish-controlled zone raises a larger question and possible irritant in Turkish- American ties: Who is to take control in Syrian areas liberated from ISIS? The Free Syrian Army (FSA), once touted as the fighting force of moderate rebel groups, is too weak. Other groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, a coalition of Islamist militias, have been supported by Turkey but are seen as radical extremists by the West.