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Turkey, US Struggle to Merge Interests in IS Fight

  • Dorian Jones

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan gives a speech in Ankara, Nov. 18, 2014.

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan gives a speech in Ankara, Nov. 18, 2014.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed Wednesday that Turkey will not open its bases to the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group until his demands are met.

His statement casts further doubt on previously-agreed-upon cooperation in the fight against the militants and comes as John Allen, U.S. presidential envoy for the anti-IS coalition, is visiting Ankara.

Erdogan, addressing reporters Wednesday before leaving for Algeria, ruled out the use of key air bases by anti-Islamic State forces unless Turkey's requirements are met in the war against the militants.

"The international community has not yet taken the steps we have recommended," he said, adding "There are only some signals and possibilities. Turkey’s position will continue as it is unless our recommendations are put in place."

Anakar's demands

Erdogan also warned that an agreement to train Syrians to fight against the Islamic State still has not been finalized. Ankara also asserts that the war against the jihadi group must be broadened to target the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

Additionally, Ankara is calling for the creation of safe haven areas in Syria, protected by no-fly zones. So far, Washington has refused such demands, arguing the priority must be defeating the militants.

Diplomatic columnist Semih Idiz of the Taraf newspaper and Al Monitor website said both domestic and regional considerations make it very difficult for the Turkish president to back down.

"President Erdogan has engaged so deeply against Assad that he cannot appear for the sake of his domestic audience to be stepping back and putting Assad on the backburner and prioritizing ISIS -- especially in view of what is happening in Aleppo at the moment, where Assad may actually gain the upper hand soon," said Idiz.

Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusolgu warned this week that Syrian government troops were on the verge of taking complete control of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, from anti-Assad forces, and that could lead to 2 - 3 million refugees crossing into Turkey. Turkish authorities say they already are hosting more than 1.5 million Syrians.

Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar of the Brussels-based Carnegie Institute in Europe, said Ankara believes it has diplomatic momentum behind its demands.

"President Erdogan was in France in talks with his French counterpart Hollande, where Hollande said publicly that France would support these demands. However important the support of Paris may be, fundamentally, it's not decisive. It will really depend whether Washington, the U.S. administration, will decide to go ahead with this," said Ulgen.

Pressing cooperation

Retired U.S. General Allen, coordinator of the anti-Islamic State coalition, is in the capital city for talks. For weeks there have been intense diplomatic efforts led by Washington to secure Ankara’s full support in the battle against the militant group.

Analysts say while differences remain, there have been reported improvements in intelligence-sharing, and Ankara has taken steps to secure its border against jihadis trying to enter Syria.

Diplomatic columnist Idiz says such is the geographic importance of NATO member Turkey all sides will work hard to find ways to cooperate.

"I don't think either side is prepared to burn any bridges at a moment like this, when regardless of what kind of imagery there may be on the surface, they are cooperating underneath to the extent that they can and in terms of their own priorities," said Idiz.

The diplomatic pressure on Ankara will continue with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden due to visit Istanbul at the end of the week. Analysts say balancing the differing priorities of the regional countries battling the Islamic State remains a key to success, but finding that balance remains difficult to achieve and maintain.

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