April 22, 2015
This week, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu arrived in Washington, D.C., and his visit could not come at a more critical time: in the face of a deteriorating security situation in the Middle East. By all accounts, the most pressing issue to be discussed in each of the meetings on his agenda – from Congressional leadership to Secretary of State John Kerry – was how to strengthen the bilateral partnership to achieve a long-term plan for stability in the region, particularly as it relates to the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Turkey and the U.S. have already taken positive first steps in this direction. In March, the Pentagon selected the first 400 Syrians who will take part in a joint training program on Turkish soil to help train moderate Syrian rebels fight the forces attempting to tear their country apart. The program, to which the U.S. Congress has pledged $500 million, expects to have 3,000 trained Syrians by the end of 2015 and a total of 5,000 by April 2016. However, both countries must ensure that this is the first step – and not the only step – in a longer-term solution.
To achieve that end, it is becoming increasingly clear that without a comprehensive plan that addresses both ISIS and the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, realizing lasting peace in Syria will not be possible. In his destabilizing attempts to maintain his hold on power, often at the expense of his own people, Assad created the conditions that led to the rise of ISIS in Syria, trapping Syrians between the dual brutalities of a violent authoritarian regime and one of the most vicious terrorist organizations to emerge in recent memory. These conditions have led to one of the most dire refugee crises in more than 20 years, with Turkey alone welcoming an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict four years ago.
Though Turkey and the U.S. have established an important framework for collaboration, there are a number of opportunities for enhanced coordination. Establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, as Turkey has recommended in the past, would allow the U.S.-led coalition to better protect and support the Syrian opposition from attacks by ISIS and Assad’s forces alike. Additionally, improved access to no-fly lists and the most up-to-date intelligence would help Turkey better monitor and detain the flow of people traveling across its borders. In recent months, increased intelligence-sharing has led to the apprehension of scores of European citizens attempting to cross through Turkey into Syria, but the expansion of these efforts will help to further restrict the flow of fighters to the terrorist group.
Greater U.S.-Turkey cooperation and coordination to stabilize the region is nothing new. Turkey has long been an important U.S. ally in the region on everything from counterterrorism efforts to NATO operations. Since 2011, Turkey and the U.S. have co-chaired the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) to help combat the rise of extremism. One of NATO’s first members, Turkey takes a leadership role in the organization today, teaching its fellow NATO allies and select non-member states how to address various terrorism-related issues at its Center of Excellence Defense Against Terrorism (COE-DAT) in Ankara. Further, Turkey’s position on the front lines of the conflict in Syria means it is fully invested in working closely with all parties that are seeking a solution to the crisis.
Minister Çavuşoğlu and Secretary Kerry have their work cut out for them. However, they had the opportunity this week to begin hammering out a plan that could set the region on a path toward calm and prosperity. Drawing on a history of collaboration and a shared vision of peaceful Middle East, both countries must find more ways to work together now to end the crisis in Syria and achieve lasting stability throughout the region.
Danismaz is the president of the Turkish Heritage Organization, a U.S.-based non-profit organization that promotes discussion and dialogue around issues of importance in the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship and Turkey’s role in the international community.
President, Turkish Heritage Organization