ANKARA (Reuters) - The U.S. decision to air-drop weapons to Kurdish forces in Syria on the same day Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan dismissed them as terrorists is the latest false note in the increasingly discordant mood music coming out of Washington and Ankara.
No matter how much officials on both sides publicly insist there is harmony, differences in strategy over the fight against Islamic State and the fate of the beleaguered Syrian border town of Kobani are straining relations between the Washington and its key regional ally, leaving Turkey increasingly isolated.
On Saturday Erdogan briefed journalists on board his lavish new presidential jet, saying it would be inappropriate for the United States to arm the Kurdish PYD which controls Kobani, besieged by Islamic State forces for more than a month.
Less than an hour after the plane touched down in Istanbul, President Barack Obama spoke to Erdogan by telephone, notifying him that weapons drops to Kobani’s defender’s were going ahead.
“U.S. actions certainly humiliated Erdogan. The story of the air-drop is one of Turkish irrelevance,” said Aaron Stein, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
An op-ed by an Erdogan adviser published on Monday after the drops reiterated Turkey’s opposition to helping the PYD, and highlighting the apparent gap between Ankara and Washington.
Hours later Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey would work with the United States to allow Iraqi Kurdish ‘peshmerga’ fighters to go to the defense of Kobani.
Senior Turkish officials paint the change of stance in a positive light. But Erdogan has kept up his attack on U.S. tactics, and the focus on Kobani.
“Now there’s this situation called Kobani. What’s the significance for it? Around 200,000 people came to my country and there are no civilians left inside apart from 2,000 PYD fighters,” he said on Thursday, branding the PYD terrorists.
But Turkey’s stance has little bearing on the direction of the coalition, and on Washington’s actions, Stein believes.
“I don’t think Turkey is buckling under the pressure (to do more), I think people are just ignoring Turkey.”
Senior U.S. officials acknowledged Turkey’s unhappiness with the air drops to the Syrian Kurds, and said they explained it to Ankara as a temporary fix, which would not be necessary if Turkey would allowed safe passage of Iraqi peshmerga fighters to Kobani to aid in the city’s defense.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the weapons drop a “momentary effort.” Describing Obama’s talks with Erdogan and his own with top Turkish officials, Kerry said: “What we did say very clearly is, ‘Help us to get the peshmerga or other groups in there who will continue this, and we don’t need to do that’ (weapons resupply).”
Another senior U.S. official said: “So what we did was actually pretty limited but basically designed to create a bridge to get to a place where the resupply was coming in via Turkey from the Kurdish peshmerga.”
A third senior U.S. official, while acknowledging remaining tensions, said the high-level diplomacy, including Obama’s phone talk with Erdogan, had at least prevented a further breakdown in relations between the two NATO allies.
The two countries still remain divided, however, over Washington’s request to use Incirlik air base to support military operations in Syria, with Erdogan demanding that the anti-Islamic State coalition set up a no-fly zone over Syria.
And U.S. suspicions remain about Turkey’s sympathies in Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world.
A U.S. government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States believes Turkey is playing a double game in Syria, lending at least covert moral support to Islamic State while avoiding doing so in public.
The official did not know if Turkey was providing financial or military support to Islamic State, but said Washington believes Turkey is partnering with Qatar in providing support to Islamist factions and militias in Libya.
The official said that the United States believes that Turkey’s ruling AK party has long had a policy of covertly seeking accommodations, if not actually trying to ingratiate itself, with Islamist groups.
Turkey has so far been a reluctant member of the U.S.-led coalition to tackle Islamic State, radical Sunni Muslim fighters who have seized swathes of territory in northern Syria and Iraq.
Ankara points to humanitarian efforts that have seen it give shelter to nearly 2 million Syrians since the beginning of the war in 2011 as proof of its commitment to the region.
But Turkey has also made it clear it sees Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a bigger threat than Islamic State, and has demanded the creation of safe areas in northern Syria and a no-fly zone before it will take a more active military role.
Despite praise for its treatment of refugees, Turkey’s failure to join the bombing campaign against Islamic State has brought criticism in western media.
Repeated denials by Turkish officials have failed to quell rumors that Ankara allowed arms and fighters to flow to radical groups in Syria as part of a strategy to topple Assad.
Earlier this month, in another awkward episode, Erdogan demanded and received an apology from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden for saying Turkey and other countries had backed extremists and whipped up sectarian conflict.
“Turkey has a perception problem... and perceptions can be more important than the truth,” said Osman Bahadir Dincer, of the Ankara based think-tank, USAK.
At home, the Turkish government’s attitude has generally gone down well with a public who have little appetite for foreign policy adventures, amidst an economic slowdown and under the strain of hosting half of all Syrian refugees.
But deadly protests by Kurds furious at Ankara’s failure to help their kin in Kobani hint at the domestic dangers of regional spillover. They also risk derailing a fragile peace process with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), aimed at ending a simmering 30-year insurgency.
In foreign relations, the picture is different.
Privately, diplomats from friendly countries express frustration, aware that Turkey’s geographical position and military power make it a vital, if increasingly mistrusted, regional ally.
“To be frank, Turkish politicians may be outstanding masters of domestic statecraft, but they are junior leaguers when it comes to foreign policy at a time when ISIS threatens to destabilize the region,” said Atilla Yesilada, an economist with New-York based Global Source Partners.
The decision to allow Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters to cross into Syria has been welcomed by officials in Washington, and may be the first sign of Turkey softening its opposition to America’s strategic focus on Islamic State.
But the month-long delay before acting has hurt Turkey internationally, and deepened the sense that its desire to be a major regional player is not backed up by its ability, according to one European diplomat based in Ankara.
Turkey’s refusal to back down on demanding the removal of Assad and the creation of safe zones has baffled and infuriated partners, who agree with the ideas in principle, but do not see them as priorities, the diplomat said.
Turkey’s leaders have never been afraid of sticking to their guns in the face of international opinion. Both Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutolgu are driven by a vision of the Middle East united by a Turkish brand of political Islam. Both believe their foreign policy is supported by moral imperatives, and that they are on the right side of history.
But unless Ankara aligns itself more closely with international opinion it will become ever more isolated, and its goals will remain out of reach, many experts believe.
Additional reporting by Asli Kandemir in Istanbul, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Warren Strobel, Steve Holland and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Giles Elgood