Turkey’s decision to actually cooperate with US-led Coalition efforts to combat the Islamic State has created an opportunity for a game changer in Syria. Not only will plans to establish an “Islamic State-free zone” in Northern Syria help expel IS from the region while offering anti-Assad ground forces a chance to entrench and regroup, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s acknowledgment that he no longer has the forces needed to secure most of Syria suggests the Islamic State and Assad’s forces are being corralled. This is, however, the Middle East and conflicting interests always threaten progress.
Turkey was wise to push the United States to “kill two birds with one stone” by persuading the Obama Administration to embrace a strategy that tackles the threat of the Islamic State and the interests of the anti-Assad forces in Syria. Unfortunately, Turkey appears to see the Assad regime and the Kurds as the two most pressing threats. Under the guise of airstrikes against the Islamic State, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shamefully wasted no time in targeting forces of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) across Iraq and Syria.
As the Kurdish Peshmerga are the most effective ground forces against the Islamic State and their willingness to fight for everyone helped bolster political support for the Turkish Kurds, Erdogan is essentially choosing to turn an opportunity to reconcile past grievances with the ethnic minority and stabilize the region into a civil war that will enflame the region. Erdogan government’s willingness to work with Coalition partners appears to be little more than an offering to convince Coalition members to ignore Turkey’s prejudice based security threat assessment and allow the Kurds to be bombed. Quite frankly, the Coalition desperately needs ground forces. As such, Turkey is offering more harm than good.
Not only are the sum of Erdogan’s policies against the Kurds starting to look a lot like genocide, which the world must remember Turkey’s historic abuse of the Armenians, he puts NATO members in a tough position. Strategically, Turkey must immediately stop attacking the Kurds or the United States and the rest of NATO must confront the Erdogan government. Recognizing Iraq is unstable and Syria is collapsing from its ongoing civil war, adding a Turkish civil war will only create a regional zone of instability where extremists will thrive. If that happens, there is a real potential that Turkey will fall into chaos. At the very least, Turkey will see massive civil unrest, economic collapse, and strained relations with the West.
Quite frankly, what Turkey is offering Coalition Forces in their fight against the Islamic State is not enough to compensate for their attacks on the Kurds. Even if Turkey eventually offered ground forces in the fight against the Islamic State, Kurdish forces will not simply move aside. Instead of fighting the Islamic State, Turkish and Kurdish forces will only escalate their ethnic conflict as they clash inside Kurdish held territory, thus giving the Islamic State an opportunity to entrench and regroup. Consequently, the United States needs to avoid supporting Turkish efforts to bomb the PKK by refusing to provide intelligence until the issue is resolved while Coalition Forces should insist on limiting Turkish airstrikes inside Kurdish-held territory.
Furthermore, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict is not the only issue complicating the situation. The US and Iran may well have reached a nuclear deal, but it is important to remember Iran is an ally of Assad. The world is looking for signs that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is truly committed to building a more palatable Iran and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will allow him to do so, but it is certain that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard does not want to reengage the West, finalize a nuclear agreement, and abandon its efforts to destabilize its neighbors. In Syria, this means the best-case scenario is for the Iranian government to not provide greater support for the Assad regime and further undermine Coalition efforts.
Clearly, Turkey’s attacks on the Kurdish forces create a situation where the Iranians and the Turks will try to push Coalition members to choose between Iranian and Turkish interests. In other words, Coalition forces will have to either ignore attacks on the Kurds or agree to cooperate with the Assad regime, which will alienate the Free Syrian Army. Neither choice is acceptable. Once again, pro-Western forces like the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga provide the essential ingredient that no other Coalition members are willing to provide, i.e. effective ground forces. If Turkey and Iran want to protect their regional and national security interests, either they need to provide support that actually helps defeat the Islamic State or Coalition Forces need to reject their tainted offerings.
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