President Barack Obama and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are scheduled to meet Sunday for what could become a crucial — even promising — turning point in the battle to defeat the Islamic State in Syria.
But a positive outcome during the G20 Summit in China is not assured. The important relationship between these two countries has hit a couple of unfortunate bumps in recent months.
And even if the meeting soothes current conflicts, the intertwined problems in the Middle East threaten to make the battle against the Islamic State last many more months, if not years.
In short, a President Donald Trump or President Hillary Clinton likely will be dealing in 2017 with whatever arrangement Obama and Erdogan forge this weekend.
The longer the Islamic State survives in Syria, its threats of spreading terrorism around the globe will persist.
Meanwhile, American lives remain at stake in Syria. On Thursday, a protester interrupted a speech by Vice President Joe Biden to complain about U.S. policies in Syria. The protester said his American friend had died while fighting with a Kurdish force against the Islamic State.
Here’s a recap of recent events.
Last week Turkey sent tanks, fighter jets and special operations forces across the border into northern Syria to fight the Islamic State. The U.S. supported Turkey’s involvement, which quickly helped liberate the border town of Jarablus from the grip of the militants.
But to the dismay of American officials, Turkish forces then started to attack nearby Kurdish-aligned militia, which Turkey insists need to retreat east of the Euphrates River.
The sticking point is that those Kurdish elements of Syrian rebel forces are backed by the U.S., partly because they also are fighting the Islamic State.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter called on Turkey to stay focused on fighting Islamic State militants and not the Kurds.
However, Erdogan said the operation in Syria would not stop until the Islamic State and the Kurdish Syrian fighters no longer posed a security threat to his country, which borders Syria.
Unfortunately, as these recent events demonstrate, there is no simple way to solve the Syrian crisis. That’s because there are four major groups battling to control what happens there.
▪ The Bashar Assad government controls the western part of the country. Russia and Iran support Assad.
▪ The Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces is based in northern Syria. They are supported by the U.S. and NATO allies — except Turkey.
▪ The Islamic State controls the central part of the country. It is the common enemy of pretty much everyone, including the U.S. as well as Turkey, the Kurds, rebels, Assad’s government, Russia and Iran.
▪ Opposition rebels (Free Syrian Army and other Islamist fighters) hold some regions in the northwest and southern Syria. Turkey supports them against the Assad government, Kurds and the Islamic State. It’s also known that there are some CIA-armed factions among the rebels such as Fursan al Haq (Knights of Righteousness).
Turkey’s recent incursion in Syria had two goals: Create an Islamic State-free zone near the two countries’ borders and prevent the spread of the Kurdish influence in northern Syria. Turkey fears that, as the Islamic State is defeated, Kurdish fighters will try to establish an enclave along that border, thus giving the Kurds a base where they can threaten Turkey in the future.
Quite correctly, the U.S. government now sees more clashes between its allies — the Turks as well as the Kurdish rebels — as a threat that could take attention away from and weaken the war on ISIS.
One key point that Obama and Erdogan will have to discuss is the city of Manbij in Syria.
Last month U.S.-backed Kurds crossed the Euphrates River and wrested control of Manbij from the Islamic State. However, now Turkey-backed opposition rebels are marching through Manbij to take it from the Kurds.
In Turkey’s eyes, this latest move would kill two birds with one stone. The region would be cleansed of both the Islamic State and Kurdish rebels. But this operation would continue to jeopardize the Turkish-U.S. coalition’s efforts against the Islamic State.
Officials in Washington are trying to maintain the delicate balance of power between Turkey and the Kurds in Syria.
Last week the U.S. government warned the Kurds that they should return to the eastern side of the Euphrates River.
Basically, the U.S. government supports Turkey’s demands for a Kurdish pullback, but it has been careful not to exclude the Kurds from all discussions about what happens in Manbij.
Syria’s future is still vague in the long term. For many years of the Obama administration, the U.S. has had a convoluted policy regarding Syria. Assad is still in power, thanks largely to assistance from the Russian government, which is acting in defiance of U.S. efforts to oust him.
Obama must clarify that policy this weekend. A prime achievement would be getting leaders of Turkey, a longtime ally that also has recently cozied up to Soviet officials, to agree that the battle to defeat the Islamic State is the top priority in Syria.