U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is visiting Turkey today, just as Secretary of State John Kerry is in Moscow holding talks with the Russian leadership. These simultaneous high-level visits underscore America’s balancing strategy in the Middle East, as well as U.S. efforts to rely more on regional actors to address the Mideast’s crises, especially when it comes to Syria.
While the Department of Defense has declined to publish further details of Carter’s Middle East trip, he is likely to meet with other U.S. allies in the region in the coming days. His visit also comes a day after President Barack Obama called for Middle Eastern countries to do more in the fight against the Islamic State and just as Saudi Arabia announced that it will lead a 34-state coalition against terrorism.
However, the negotiations also signal the difficulties the U.S. faces as its own priorities in the region differ from those of regional powers. The primary U.S. goal in Syria is to weaken the Islamic State and prevent it from seizing power in Damascus. Defeating the Islamic State, as Kerry himself has admitted, requires more than airstrikes – it requires ground troops. The U.S. government is thus aiming to create an alliance that includes both Syrian regime troops and opposition forces in order to fight the Islamic State in Syria. To achieve this goal, the U.S. is using Russia — an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — to pressure Syria and bring Assad to the negotiating table. At the same time, U.S. strategy requires the Islamic State to be cut off from its supply lines to Turkey. U.S. decision-makers are thus pressuring Turkey to conduct more airstrikes and seal its border with Syria, in an effort to make it harder for the Islamic State to access resources and new recruits.
While U.S. and Russian priorities in Syria are converging, Turkish priorities differ somewhat from those of the U.S. Turkey has long opted to limit entanglements abroad and focus on protecting its core. Turkey’s priority is to maintain its unity and territorial integrity. Ankara strongly opposes the Syrian regime and likely worries more about the empowerment of Kurds in Iraq and Syria, as well as within Turkey’s own borders, than it does about the Islamic State. Turkey’s failure to completely seal off its border with Syria, as well as its recent decision to send troops into Iraq, have caused consternation in Washington, with U.S. officials repeatedly calling for Turkey to do more to secure its border and to respect Iraq’s sovereignty.
Regional tensions are presenting both a challenge and an opportunity for the U.S. to achieve its goals in Syria. Turkey is reluctant to become more assertive in the region, but with Russia to its north and now also active in Syria, and with an increasingly emboldened Iran enjoying influence in neighboring Iraq, Turkey is feeling increasingly cornered. As a result, Ankara will likely move closer to the U.S. and become more active regionally. When Turkey shot down a Russian military jet, the U.S. quickly called for calm. Turkey is a NATO member, and the U.S. does not want to be drawn into a conflict with Russia, especially at a time when Washington is attempting to cooperate with Moscow in Syria. On the other hand, tensions between Turkey and Russia are giving the Americans an opportunity to play both sides off each other. A similar dynamic is at play when it comes to Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are launching a coalition against terrorism with great fanfare partly because they see U.S.-Russia cooperation on Syria, U.S.-Iran rapprochement, and Iran’s influence over the Syrian regime, and wish to ensure that Saudi Arabia will have a role in shaping Syria’s future.
The U.S. is thus striving to maintain a careful regional balance while cooperating with all sides in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. A part of this strategy will entail coaxing regional powers to take steps that are not necessarily in their immediate interest, as well as selectively coordinating with strange bedfellows.