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Fence-mending in Turkey, Biden commits to 'transition' in Syria

Vice President Joe Biden assured Turkey Saturday that the U.S. plans to strengthen Syrian rebels and ensure a political transition “away from the Assad regime,” but he stopped short of committing to regime change in Damascus demanded by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On a fence-mending trip to a critical but reluctant ally in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic extremists, Biden appeared to edge slightly closer to Turkey’s position, but not enough to clarify the central ambiguity in U.S. policy.

“On Syria, we discussednot only to deny ISIL a safe haven and roll back and defeat them, but also strengthen the Syrian opposition and ensure a transition away from the Assad regime,” Biden told reporters after four hours of talks with Erdogan. ISIL is an alternative name for the Islamic State.

Prior to the meeting, a Turkish official said Ankara sought “a much more comprehensive approach” than Washington to the crisis in Syria and Iraq. He spoke after a long dinner Friday night between Biden and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Erdogan took a step back from his own confrontational rhetoric, saying Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. is based on mutual truest and benefit and “is stronger than ever.” He said Turkey and the U.S. “have a consensus on several regional issues,” an apparent reference to rapidly expanding collaboration in Iraq.

It was a milder tone than on Wednesday, when Erdogan charged the U.S.-led Coalition “had not made the steps we asked them for.” Among the steps were setting up a no-fly zone and a safe area inside Syria to protect millions of internally displaced civilians as well as “decisive steps” toward training and equipping rebel forces.

Both topics likely came up in their long discussion Saturday, and neither side can claim a consistent position. The U.S., which is talking about expanding training for moderate rebel forces, in fact has been parsimonious about support for fighters now in the field. Its failure to integrate them into its overall strategy contributed to a stinging setback in Idlib province at the hands of Al Qaida-affiliated rebels earlier this month.

At the same time, there are growing questions about Turkey’s own commitment to a no fly zone and whether it would send its armed forces across the border to establish it.

Yet Biden’s visit here also brought forth the first signs of policy convergence. Midway through the discussion here, the Turkish government disclosed that it is willing to train and equip Iraqi government forces, a dramatic shift to support Iraq’s new leadership of Prime Minister Haider Abadi after years of tensions with his predecessor, Nouri al Maliki. Turkey also disclosed it is training Peshmerga militias under control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

This all seemed to have come about as part of the preparations for the Biden talks. Davutoglu pledged to train and assist national guard units that Abadi is setting up to fight the Islamic State, the Turkish official said. “We are always ready to give any kind of contribution” to the Iraqi authorities, added the official, who disclosed the policy changes on condition he not be identified by name.

Before returning to meet with Biden, Davutgoglu visited Irbil, the capital of the largely autonomous Kurdish region, and a camp where Turkey has already begun training Peshmerga forces, the official said. Just a few years ago, Turkey and the KRG were frequently at loggerheads over the KRG’s willingness to host armed Turkish separatists who were at war with the Turkish state.

Biden’s visit to Istanbul was his first since the blow-up last month that followed his public criticism of Turkey for “contributing to the rise” of the Islamic State. Erdogan said if Biden didn’t apologize for his remarks, he will be “history to me.”

The White House said Biden had apologized to Erdogan, but early this month, Biden left things confused when he said in a CNN interview: “I never apologized to him.” The issue never came up here, for reporters weren’t allowed to ask questions of either Biden or Erdogan.

Biden defended his blunt style. “Friends don’t let friends wonder about what they are thinking,” he said after arriving here Friday night. He described the talks with Erdogan in similar terms Saturday: “We had a candid discussion, and we strategized together as allies and friends do.” He also summed up the often stormy relationship. "We need Turkey, and I think Turkey believes that it needs us as well."

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But prior to the meeting with Erdogan Saturday, Biden may have crossed another line with prickly Turkish leader, by indirectly criticizing his increasingly autocratic leadership style. “We believe innot three branches of government, but three equal branches of government,” he said in remarks before representatives of the “Checks and Balances Network,” a group of 185 civil society organizations supporting pluralistic democracy in Turkey.

“Our founders concluded that a concentration of power was the most corrosive thing that could happen in any system. We still believe that,” Biden said, with reporters present.

Special correspondent Duygu Guvenc contributed

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