US-Turkey military deal: A turning point in Obama's handling of Syria crisis?

With the Iran nuclear negotiations out of the way and President Obama in legacy-building mode, the White House is seen by some to be refocusing on the devastating conflict in Syria with the Turkey agreement.

Vadim Ghirda/AP/File
A US Air Force plane takes off from the Incirlik airbase, in southern Turkey, Sept. 2013. Turkey has agreed to let the US military use the key air base near the border with Syria to launch airstrikes against the Islamic State, senior Obama administration officials said July 23, 2015, giving a boost to the US-led coalition amid a surge of violence in Turkey blamed on IS-linked militants.
Depo Photos/AP Photo/File
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media in front of a mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, Friday, July 24, 2015. The United States and Turkey have reached a military deal allowing the US to launch its own strikes from Turkey's strategically located Incirlik Air Base.

The military deal reached by the United States and Turkey is perhaps the single most significant step forward in efforts to address the Syrian civil war and the related rise of the Islamic State, regional experts say.

The agreement will allow the US to use Turkish air bases for the US-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State, and it will create what the US calls an Islamic State no-go zone along the Turkish border in northern Syria.

It does not seal the defeat of the Islamic State. Nor does it promise the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the quick resolution of the Syrian civil war and humanitarian crisis.

But the agreement, which senior administration officials emphasize is still only an outline, nevertheless integrates into the anti-Islamic State campaign a reluctant partner that the Obama administration has been trying for years to woo into playing a much larger role.

“This deal means the gap between the US and Turkey is being bridged ... and that’s a beginning,” says Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.

In that way, some regional analysts see the deal with Turkey as a turning point in President Obama’s handling of the Syrian crisis. With the Iran nuclear negotiations out of the way and Mr. Obama in legacy-building mode, the White House is seen by some to be refocusing on a devastating conflict – which includes the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

“The president in his 18 months or so remaining in the White House definitely wants to see some progress on Syria,” says Frederic Hof, an expert in US Middle East policy at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Just giving the US access to Turkish air bases will make an enormous difference in the air campaign to degrade the Islamic State, Dr. Cagaptay says. “You can’t control who takes out whom from four hours away in Kuwait,” where US air strikes currently originate, “but you can from 10 minutes away” in Turkey.

Over the course of the Syrian conflict, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has consistently prioritized deposing Syrian President Assad rather than halting the rise and spread of the Islamic State. The result has been a lurching, on-again, off-again cooperation with the US against the Islamic State.

Mr. Erdogan has also been reluctant to assist the anti-Islamic State fight in ways that might boost the Kurds of northern Syria and inspire Turkey’s Kurdish population. Indeed, some see the agreement as a back door for Turkey to rein in Kurds along its border.

In the end, it was a succession of devastating terrorist attacks in Turkey, at the hands of the PKK Kurdish separatist group and by an Islamic State suicide bomber, that prompted Erdogan’s desire for a deal. Another motivating factor, some analysts say, was growing US cooperation with Syrian Kurds, whose fighting forces have racked up some of the most decisive victories against the Islamic State.

In short, the decision was the result of an evolution in Turkish thinking, not stepped-up US pressure, analysts say.

“The driver here was Turkish timing, not US timing,” Cagaptay says.

The new no-go zone will extend for about 68 miles along the Syrian-Turkish border – the last section of Syrian borderlands remaining in Islamic State hands.

On a conference call with reporters Tuesday, senior Obama administration officials who spoke on condition of not being named insisted that the no-go zone should be seen neither as a no-fly zone (aimed largely at Assad’s air forces) nor as a “safe zone.” It will be a swath of border territory that is “cleaned out” and then held by what the administration says will be moderate Syrian opposition forces trained by the Pentagon in Turkey.

Analysts say the area has a chance of developing into much more than an “Islamic State-free” zone.

The zone could be the beginning of an anti-Islamic State foothold in Syria, Cagaptay says, especially if Assad continues to pull back into a small corner of the country along the Mediterranean coast.

“If the Assad regime starts contracting to an Alawite enclave and the big cities like Aleppo and even Damascus start coming under ISIS threat,” the US will redouble its air assault and the de facto safe zone will be expanded, says Cagaptay, using one acronym for the Islamic State.

Mr. Hof agrees. The strategically critical and fiercely contested city of Aleppo lies just a few miles south of the no-go zone, he notes. Stepped-up US and coalition activity in the skies could force Assad to rethink his barrel-bombing of civilian populations there. Long-term, Hof says a de facto safe zone could end up “setting the stage” for a political settlement of the Syrian conflict.

Viewed that way, Hof says, “the Washington-Ankara initiative may be far more than a chapter in a ground war against ISIS.”

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