Vice President Joe Biden met with Turkish leaders in Istanbul over the weekend, asking for more Turkish help against the Islamic State and offering to assist with border security, while supporting Turkey’s campaign against the Kurdish separatists of the PKK. The Vice President’s remarks illustrated the delicate balance act between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, ISIS, and the Kurds.
The Wall Street Journal begins its coverage of Biden’s visit to Istanbul by noting one the Administration’s major objectives is brokering a deal between Turkey and Iraq that would “reduce rising tensions between the two countries over the presence of Turkish forces at a training camp in northern Iraq.”
The persistence of this issue will come as a surprise to outside observers who thought the presence of some 150 Turkish troops at a camp in Iraq, ostensibly to train local forces for the long-awaited battle to retake Mosul, was a relatively minor misunderstanding. Instead, there are clearly still concerns the Turkish and Iraqi governments won’t be on the same page when the operation to recapture Mosul from ISIS begins.
The WSJ mentions Turkey needling Iraq by insisting its troops must remain near Mosul to “fill a vacuum created by the inability of Iraqi forces to protect the Turkey-Iraq border.” The Iraqis obviously understand, and resent, the insult.
It is not encouraging to see the operation quietly pushed back again and again. It was originally supposed to happen right around the time ISIS stunned the Iraqi government and U.S. coalition by capturing the city of Ramadi.
A year later, with Ramadi (mostly) liberated, reports consistently circulate that the Battle of Mosul is “looming” as Iraqi, Shiite, and Kurdish forces mass around the city, and the U.S. prepares the battlefield with airstrikes. And yet, here a senior Administration official is telling the Wall Street Journal the operation has entered the “hard-core planning” stages, but is not “imminent.”
That will come as disappointing news to the resistance fighters who have taken to hanging notices on light poles in Mosul, begging Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to “declare the war against Daesh,” because after 18 months of occupation, “we are tired of waiting – we will give support to liberate Mosul once you declare zero hour.”
Mosul is a must-win battle. The anti-ISIS coalition simply cannot afford a bloody quagmire, massive civilian casualties, or Iraqi troops under-performing as badly as they did during the Islamic State’s blitz into Iraq from Syria. The Turks will have a significant role to play in a winning operation, and clearly the Administration is still worried about getting them on board.
After meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Biden declared, “We are increasingly making progress, and I am confident that progress will be sped up as a consequence of our meeting today. Today we agreed to do even more.”
Biden wants more help from Turkey on a number of fronts, including enhanced Turkish border security with Syria. ISIS recruits have flowed across that border for years, and there have been allegations Islamic State oil is flowing in the opposite direction.
The Russians are especially keen on accusing Turkey of buying Islamic State oil. Turkey is reluctant to agree to any border security enhancements that would appear to validate Russian criticisms of their past behavior. (The more cynical Turk-watchers would say they also do not want to make their Syrian border so secure that contraband oil cannot be shipped across it.)
Thus, the Wall Street Journal has Biden offering U.S. border security assistance to Turkey, including “aerostat balloons and technology to detect smuggling tunnels,” and Administration officials declaring “there was no disagreement” from Davutoglu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the proposals, but the Turks refusing to actually commit to any such measures.
Another sore point is Turkey’s ongoing battle against the Kurdish separatists of the PKK. Biden “strongly backed” Turkey against the PKK according to the Wall Street Journal, even though human-rights groups have increasingly complained about the suffering of civilians caught in the crossfire, and Turkey’s repression of political dissent – and damaging media coverage – in the Kurdish southeast.
However, the more intractable issue is that Turkey views the Kurdish militia forces fighting ISIS in Syria, the YPG, as allies of the PKK. The Turkish fear of a Greater Kurdistan sprawling across Turkey, Syria, and Iraq remains much greater than their concerns about ISIS, which they still view as a problem to be dealt with after the Western world comes to its senses and topples the Assad regime in Syria.
Those Kurdish groups are not only strong allies of the United States against the Islamic State, they have been the only effective ground force in Syria that were not aligned with either terrorists or the brutal Syrian regime. Turkey wants the U.S. to stab the Kurds in the back, excluding them from ongoing international negotiations to achieve a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis.
The Administration’s refusal to do so is not exactly brimming with gratitude to those stalwart Kurdish allies, as the Journal renders it: “Mr. Biden’s argument in his private meetings with Turkish leaders was that if the U.S. backed off its support for the YPG, Turkey’s fears that the group would turn to Russia or move to try to completely occupy the Syrian border would be realized.” U.S. officials said Biden didn’t even discuss the political resolution of Syria with the Turks.
Biden stressed that the U.S. would continue its military campaign against ISIS even if the Syrian crisis is not resolved. That campaign has only very recently escalated into anything more vigorous than Obama’s original get-off-my-back strategy of sprinkling a few bombs here and there, to convince the U.S. media to report he was “doing something” about ISIS. There is no mystery about why the old Obama plan was discarded: Russia’s entry into Syria, the Paris massacre, and the San Bernardino jihad attack made it clear the Islamic State was no longer a problem this President could punt to his successors.
Unfortunately, the Administration is now running afoul of the problems it left to fester for years, back when Obama claimed ISIS could be “contained” until it was “degraded and ultimately destroyed,” on a timetable of decades.