In seeking to ease their tense differences over Syria, Iraq, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Kurds, Turkey and the US seem to be intensifying their efforts to find some common ground.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s recent talks with his Iraqi counterpart, Haidar al-Abadi, in Baghdad, and his meeting in Arbil with Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) preceded the visit by Joe Biden, vice president of the US, to Turkey.
Two developments are important in the bilateral context. Turkey, chiefly due to its growing need for oil, wants to make the best of the new phase, after the ouster of Maliki, who is generally seen as having mismanaged Iraq in past years. No matter how much and how long it put the blame on the former prime minister of Iraq, Ankara is left with the only neighbor with some prospects of progress, after the tragic collapse of the “zero problem” policy. Iraq is now the sole maker or breaker of it. This explains the appeasing rhetoric of Davutoğlu, certainly encouraged by the US.
Off the hook of the burden of midterm elections, US President Barack Obama is now in a more different mood regarding foreign policy. Having recently enhanced the Pentagon’s role in Afghanistan, Obama feels, apparently, that he has to revisit his timid Syria and Iraq policies.
Biden’s talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it appears, is to be seen as an effort to intensify the focus on Iraq, rather than Syria. Stability, political unity and the territorial integrity of Iraq are the elements that both sides of the “transactional partnership” must be exploring to find a common ground.
It was not, therefore, surprising that the joint press conference (which, it must be mentioned, was shameful, because due to the Turkish side’s wishes, the Turkish press was not present in its diversity, nor were questions allowed) highlighted Iraq, while only bypassing Syria, and not mentioning issues such as a “safe zone” or forceful “regime change” in Damascus.
After much clod-hopping lately by President Erdoğan on the Kurds in Syria and in Turkey over Kobani, what Davutoğlu in Iraq had to do was restore diplomatic relations with Baghdad and rebuild much lost trust with Barzani. Ankara is now engaged in a delicate acrobacy: The government must keep Turkey’s dismayed Kurds calm until securing the elections, prevent the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) gaining any further ground in Syrian Kurdish territories while engaging more intensely with the KRG, since it controls the oil resources it needs. Barzani’s promise that now 150,000 barrels per day will flow from Kirkuk to Turkey is a critical step.
How this game will play out remains to be seen; what’s different now is Washington seems to endorse a rapid rapprochement between Ankara and Baghdad, now that Maliki is gone.
What of Syria, then?
Although fresh reports coming in tell us that Obama ordered a revisit of the Syria strategy, nobody should expect any change in the policy of the US soon.
What Erdoğan seems to hold as a “condition” bears no weight (it is only Ankara, and no other capital in the region under the current circumstances, that demands a regime change by force), because Obama knows that the US is to confront a very unpredictable Russia emboldened by the actions in Ukraine — and also because of the delicacy of the Iran nuclear talks, this option is shelved for an unforeseeable future.
Focus now shifts to Iraq. Ankara seems intent on training the peshmerga, as pledged by Davutoğlu.
Yet, it remains to be seen whether or not the chief of General Staff was informed on that one. One should not be surprised if not. Remember that the top command had recently declared it would be rendered ineffective when the government allowed KRG militia to pass through Turkish territory into Kobani.
Obama may decide a more aggressive Syria policy, provided that it will not alienate the Kurds. Since the priority will be to cleanse Iraq from ISIL, what one can expect is, perhaps, increased air operations, mainly from Incirlik Air Base, against ISIL positions, and in order to protect moderate Syrian opposition units from Assad regime’s attacks.
At best, if Aleppo is secured as a free city, to be defended against both Assad and ISIL, perhaps then, other options can be realistic.