Joe Biden came, saw, but failed to conquer Turkey
If US Vice President Joe Biden hoped for a trade-off with Turkish President Recep Erdogan – US assurances over Euphrates River ‘red line’ for Kurdish militia in lieu of Turkey’s acquiescence with Islamist preacher Fetullah Gulen remaining in Pennsylvania – that was not to be. ‘Euphrates Shield’ pre-empted Biden’s bidding. Erdogan thereby made Gulen’s extradition a ‘stand-alone’ issue. US’s Syria policies are in free fall and Turkey is increasingly eyeing Russia and Iran as its key interlocutors to resolve the Syrian problem.
Strategic ambiguity becomes necessary even between allies while addressing difficult issues. Turkey, with its long experience in diplomacy, displayed this week its exceptional mastery over the concept of strategic ambiguity.
When US President Barack Obama ‘upgraded’ the mission to Ankara from the level of secretary of state to the vice-president, Turkey was expected to feel honored. Instead, when Joe Biden arrived in Ankara on August 24, he was received at the airport by the deputy mayor.
Again, even as his aircraft was approaching Turkish air space, Ankara deftly undercut his negotiating brief. Turkish Special Forces had crossed the border already into Syria by the time Biden landed in Ankara.
Turkey maintains that it is fighting the Islamic State, reputed to be present in Jarablus. But Biden understood the explicit meaning of ‘Euphrates Shield’.
In plain terms, Turkey intends to send the Kurdish militia packing across the Euphrates River, which is its ‘red line’.
Washington was ambivalent over Turkey’s ‘red line’, Ankara’s demarches notwithstanding. Turkey decided, finally, to present Washington with a fait accompli.
Within hours of Biden’s departure from Turkey, Secretary of State John Kerry scrambled to inform Ankara on phone that Kurdish militia will retreat to the eastern side of Euphrates.
Yet, Ankara maintains that the operation is directed against the IS, leaving Pentagon to grind its teeth and helplessly watch its only reliable ally in Syria being made mishmash.
If Biden hoped for a trade-off with Turkish President Recep Erdogan – US assurances over ‘red line’ in lieu of Turkey’s acquiescence with Islamist preacher Fetullah Gulen remaining in Pennsylvania – that is not to be.
‘Euphrates Shield’ pre-empted Biden’s bidding. Erdogan thereby made Gulen’s extradition a ‘stand-alone’ issue.
Biden pleaded that due process of law is at work and explained the helplessness to accede to the Turkish request (which actually comes within the ambit of a bilateral extradition treaty.)
Conceivably, Erdogan knows that Washington cannot extradite someone as priceless as Gulen who has been a ‘strategic asset’ of US intelligence. Nonetheless, he insists that the American response will be a litmus test of intentions toward Turkey.
Erdogan told Biden that Gulen is still indulging in activities directed against his government. An influential Turkish editor who is close to the ruling elites, Ilnur Cevik wrote that Biden “put on a Hollywood act in Ankara”. Cevik’s sharp remarks catch the ugly mood in Ankara:
- He (Biden) flashed smiles all day long and pretended to embrace the Turkish people… told our leaders that the U.S. is a country ruled by law… Yes, of course, when the U.S. was clandestinely kidnapping and arresting al-Qaeda suspects all around the world and putting them into the hell hole called Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. was following the rule of law, international law and even American laws. The law in the U.S. is, of course, as supreme as the policemen that kill innocent law-abiding black Americans in the streets and get away with it. So it seems Biden came to Ankara, listened to us with great “sympathy” and then told us what would not happen and flew home.
What next? Clearly, Erdogan won’t blink. That leaves Obama to choose between Gulen’s extradition or stand by the CIA’s cover-up.
Herein lies the strategic ambiguity that descends over the future trajectory of Turkish-American relationship.
The crisis of confidence in Turkey-US relations can only deepen unless Obama comes down on his knees.
On the other hand, if it is Erdogan’s unspoken desire to downsize the Turkish-American alliance, a splendid opportunity comes his way now.
No matter the brave face being put on it, NATO alliance has hit the rocks. Spiegel reported that Germany may redeploy its military contingent in Incirlik.
Indeed, how long can the US-led coalition operate out of Incirlik as if nothing happened? This is one thing.
Within a day of Biden’s visit, Turkey disclosed that the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces General Valery Gerasimov is visiting Ankara to discuss “military cooperation.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also dropped a heavy hint that Russian President Vladimir Putin may visit Antalya next week on Erdogan’s invitation to watch a football match.
Indeed, Turkey gave prior intimation to Moscow and Tehran regarding Euphrates Shield. The Moscow reports said Turkey “coordinated” with Russian military.
Unsurprisingly, the expressions of concern by Moscow and Tehran have been for record, way below condemnation of Euphrates Shield.
Meanwhile, Erdogan may visit Tehran soon. The Saudi establishment daily Asharq Al-Awsat quoted ‘diplomatic sources’ that Tehran is mediating between Ankara and Damascus.
Simply put, US’s Syria policies are in free fall. Turkey is increasingly eyeing Russia and Iran as its key interlocutors to resolve the Syrian problem.
Turkish intelligence has been keeping contacts with Damascus since May. Formal relations and open dealings are now a matter of time. Ankara is reconciled to President Bashar Al-Assad remaining in power.
Thus, Turkey is driving the last nail on the coffin of Washington’s decade-long ‘regime change’ agenda in Syria.
Turkey has become a stakeholder in Syria’s unity and integrity. This also has fall-outs on Iraq. In fact, beneath the radar, there are churnings on the eastern side of the Euphrates as well.
The new alliance between two of the three main parties in Iraqi Kurdistan – Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Gorran – virtually scuttles the plans by the third force, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), to hold referendum on independent Kurdistan.
Against this backdrop, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem arrived in Baghdad on Thursday to a warm welcome. Muallem last visited Baghdad in 2013.
Evidently, with the war against the Islamic State reaching the final stage, Syria and Iraq have a lot to discuss and coordinate on downstream developments.
Both desire the rollback of the tide of Kurdistan set in motion by Washington in the region over 25 years ago when the US unilaterally imposed a ‘no-fly zone’ over northern Iraq following the Gulf War in 1991.
On the other hand, Turkey and Iran also have a convergence of interests today insofar both visualize that Kurdistan might be used by foreign powers as staging post to interfere in the region.
Turkey’s support is a vital lifeline for the KDP government in Erbil. Turkey also keeps a military base near Mosul. In sum, Ankara wields much leverage on Iraqi Kurdistan.
Interestingly, KDP leader Massoud Barzani met Erdogan in Ankara on Tuesday. Simultaneously, Nechervan Barzani, prime minister of Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil (son of Massoud Barzani), went to Tehran for talks with Iranian leaders.
It appears that Ankara and Tehran are seriously preparing for Erdogan’s forthcoming trip to Iran. These Middle Eastern heavyweights share the conviction that the region will be better off if extra-regional powers are kept out of the affairs of the region.
Washington needed to inject transparency into its regional strategies. Its ‘hidden agenda’ only isolated it. But then, geopolitics came in the way – Israel’s pre-eminence in the region, Iran’s inexorable rise, Turkey’s independent foreign policies, politics of gas pipelines, New Cold War and so on.
Washington’s strategic setback in Iraq and Syria will get reflected in other theatres as well – Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, etc. Arguably, Saudi Arabia and Israel also stand to lose heavily.
The bottom line is that the century-old western hegemony over Muslim Middle East is unravelling. The weakening of Iraq, Syria and Egypt through the past decade might have helped the US strategies.
On the contrary, the ascendancy of Iran and Turkey as regional powers and their newfound assertiveness changes the calculus adversely for the West in general and the US in particular.
Retrieving the lost ground is going to be a long haul. New contenders are also appearing on the horizon, as the visit by a senior Chinese admiral to Damascus last week testifies.
Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.