The Obama Administration tried to defuse a political argument with Turkey on Saturday, apologizing for comments by Vice President Joe Biden that said Ankara — and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other countries — had fuelled extremism in Syria’s conflict.
Earlier in the day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had demanded the apology for Biden’s assertion on Thursday, to an audience at Harvard University, that the American allies were “so determined to take down” President Assad that they backed “terrorist” organizations such as Al Qa’eda in pursuit of “a proxy Sunni-Shia war”.
Biden also said Erdoğan had admitted to him that Ankara made “mistakes that paved the way for the rise of the jihadists”: “[He said] you were right, we let too many people through, now we are trying to seal the border.”
Erdoğan responded angrily:
I never admitted any mistake nor did we told them that they “were right” during my visit to the US, If Mr. Biden uttered these remarks at Harvard, he should apologize. I’m telling this clearly. And we won’t accept slender, indirect explanations.
The UAE also objected, with Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Mohammad Gargash, calling for a “formal clarification”: “[Biden’s remarks] are far from the truth, especially with relation to the UAE’s role in confronting extremism and terrorism and its clear and advanced position in recognising the dangers, including the danger of financing terrorism and terrorist groups.”
The State Department relented a few hours later, at least with respect to Turkey, with a brief statement:
Vice President Joe Biden spoke today with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to clarify recent comments made at Harvard University.
The Vice President apologized for any implication that Turkey or other Allies and partners in the region had intentionally supplied or facilitated the growth of ISIL or other violent extremists in Syria.
The Vice President made clear that the United States greatly values the commitments and sacrifices made by our Allies and partners from around the world to combat the scourge of ISIL [Islamic State], including Turkey. The two leaders reaffirmed the importance of Turkey and the United States working closely together to confront ISIL.
Saturday’s dispute was an escalation of tension from last month, as the US launched airstrikes against both the Islamic State and the insurgency’s Jabhat al-Nusra inside Syria. The Administration, using unnamed officials for media leaks, criticized Ankara for refusing to join the effort — in particular, by denying bases to American forces.
Supportive American media alleged that Turkey was accepting, or possibly even supporting, the Islamic State by allowing its fighters to cross the Turkish-Syrian border. However, Ankara’s refusal to join the US operations appeared to rest on its insistence that Washington follow a campaign against the jihadists with support of the insurgency to remove President Assad.
Erdoğan restated that line this week as the Government asked Parliament to approve Turkey’s military intervention, including the establishment of safe havens inside Syria manned by Turkish forces. He said permission for the use of bases by foreign forces would be given, provided the defeat of Assad and the Syrian military was also pursued.
Parliament approved the Government’s requests by a 298-98 vote.