WASHINGTON (Today’s Zaman)—A day after the United States implicitly denied claims that talks to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria had concluded, striking another note of discord in the public relationship between Ankara and Washington, Turkey’s foreign minister clung to his previous position, saying that Turkish and US officials had finalized technical talks on operations against ISIL.
The contrasting statements emanating from Ankara and Washington begged the question of whether there is deepening acrimony between the two allies over how to proceed to flush out ISIL militants from the Turkish border.
On Tuesday Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkish and US officials have concluded “technical talks” on operations against ISIL, a day after US officials refrained from confirming his earlier remarks about completion of talks.
Cavusoglu told reporters on Tuesday that Turkish and US military officials have sealed an agreement on technical details; however, he did not elaborate on the details of the plan.
“The military authorities have signed off [on the agreement],” he said.
When asked about the existence of differing statements from the two sides, he said the time difference between Turkey and the US would be responsible for that.
Alarmed by the growing Kurdish influence in northern Syria, Turkey offered in June to fully cooperate with the coalition to ensure that a 100-kilometer stretch of territory that is controlled by ISIL and separates two areas held by Kurds does not turn into a 21,000-square-kilometer Kurdish-controlled territory almost twice the size of Lebanon. Last month, Turkey and the US struck a deal that allowed coalition jets to use Turkish airfields including Incirlik Air Base from which to hit ISIL targets.
Monday’s entry into the summer saga between the countries started when Cavusoglu claimed that the technical talks with the US had concluded on Sunday and that both countries are rolling up their sleeves to launch a large-scale assault on the ISIL-held territory. “Soon we will start this operation, comprehensive operations, against Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIL],” Cavusoglu told Reuters in an interview.
The White House avoided publicly refuting the foreign minister, only saying that it cannot confirm if Turkey and the US have concluded talks on moving forward together to strike ISIL, which is expected to be a large-scale and coordinated effort to clear the last pocket of extremist militants from the Turkish-Syrian border.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said senior US and Turkish officials have been engaged in discussions on how the allies can deepen their cooperation to destroy ISIL. “These conversations have gone past what was part of the original agreement to allow US and other coalition forces to use air bases in Turkey to launch counter-ISIL strikes,” Earnest said.
A senior Pentagon official told Today’s Zaman that he agrees with the White House statement on this and declined to confirm Cavusoglu’s account. US Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James also told reporters in Washington on Monday that the discussions with Turkey are “ongoing.”
Differing statements from Ankara and Washington follow a series of miscommunications between the two allies. The primary disagreement is on the possible creation of a safe zone that will refuse Kurdish militants of the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) as well as Syrian regime forces to re-occupy the liberated territory. The US disagrees with Turkey on that front.
The White House tried to make sure that its statement didn’t put Ankara in a difficult spot, with the spokesman even arguing that he was “not contradicting” what Cavusoglu said.
“We continue to engage in conversations with Turkey about how to deepen that conversation in a way to help advance our strategy to counter ISIL but also in a way that would improve the security situation along Turkey’s long border with Syria,” Earnest said. “I am merely suggesting that these talks are ongoing and we have been interested in agreements that would deepen the cooperation between the United States and Turkey,” he added.
“But I cannot confirm the results of these talks at this point.”
Shortly after a bombing attack that killed 33 people in the Turkish border town of Suruc last month, Turkish warplanes took off to hit ISIL targets in northern Syria. But the strikes came to an abrupt end, raising questions if the air strikes were a ruse to go after the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Brett McGurk, US deputy special presidential envoy tasked with building up a coalition to combat ISIL, said last week that the reason for the lull in Turkish air strikes against ISIL in the past month is the ongoing talks between Turkey and the US on operational military details. Once they are finalized, McGurk said Turkish F-16s will start conducting sorties to take out ISIL positions in Syria. He said the US has a team of military professionals in Turkey working with the Turkish military to work out the arrangements and the mechanisms for a joint air campaign.
The US Central Command also made a similar statement last week, saying that the US and Turkey are finalizing details of Turkey’s announced participation in the air campaign against ISIL. It said Turkish officials have definitely highlighted that they are committed to participating in the anti-ISIL air operations and that Turkey has stopped making any anti-ISIL flights until both countries have finalized efforts on how the allies will be part of the coalition’s air campaign.
US State Department Spokesman John Kirby said Cavusoglu is referring to these discussions. He said Turkey was not flying missions because “we had asked them not to” so that the allies could properly coordinate their air operations. “We’re finalizing those details now,” Kirby said.
When asked about the Turkish foreign minister’s remarks on Monday, Kirby struck a similar tone and approach. “I wouldn’t push back on the notion that we’ve concluded discussions, but we’re finalizing technical details now as a result of that,” the spokesman highlighted.
Speaking at a press conference in Ankara along with the foreign minister of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) on Tuesday, Cavusoglu blamed the Turkish media for, he claimed, spreading false information and making out that US officials had denied the veracity of statements made by Turkish officials.
“American spokespeople brought the issue of the signature [agreement] to the fore. They announced that details [talks] are very close to being finalized. There is nothing contradictory between these [their remarks and mine]. The information might have been transmitted there due to the time difference,” Cavusoglu said. “Our [my] statements yesterday were correct. It is not right to spread false reports as if there are different or divergent views between Turkey and the US.”