The Obama Administration, Turkey, and Syria’s Kurds

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By FPI Board Member Eric Edelman and Henri J. Barkey

A crucial part of President Obama’s effort to build a broad coalition to halt the spread of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria is the Administration’s lobbying effort to win Turkey’s cooperation. Over the past several weeks the Secretaries of State and Defense have visited Turkey, Vice President Joe Biden met with President Erdogan in New York, and the President has spoken to Erdogan by phone. Although the Turkish Parliament has voted to permit the government to take action against IS in Syria (as it had earlier done in Iraq) the Turkish government has yet to bestir itself, despite the murderous rampage unleashed against Syrian Kurds by IS militants who have invested the Kurdish border town of Kobani. Turkish hesitance to join the coalition was previously attributed to concerns over the fate of the 46 Turkish from the former Mosul consulate taken hostage by IS, but these captives have been released.

What then explains Turkey’s continued dithering in the face of Kobani’s potential fall to IS forces?

According to reporting in the Washington Post, a knowledgeable Turkish analyst has said, “Turkey is going to do the bare minimum to get America off its back. . . . But not so much that it will align Turkey in what will be seen as a Western coalition formed not to fight Assad—as Turkey has wanted for a long time—but to fight what Turkey regards as misguided Islamic youths.” The Erdogan government may well be calculating that continued inaction will allow IS to cut down to size the Syrian Kurds, who have won de facto control of many border areas. If that is the case, it could well turn out to be a disastrous miscalculation for both Turkey and the United States. Turkey is also wary of the fate of a company of its soldiers some 30 kilometers inside Syrian territory guarding an ancient tomb. Considered Turkish territory, the Suleyman Shah tomb is within IS-controlled territory and hence at the mercy of jihadists.

If Kobani were to fall to IS in the face of U.S. declarations that it is waging a war against IS militants, history would, in a sense, be repeating itself. The United States stood by idly and watched Saddam Hussein massacre Kurdish and Shi‘a populations at the conclusion of the Gulf War, with long-term deleterious consequences for U.S. credibility in the region. This is in addition to the U.S. abandonment in 1975, and again in 1988, when Kurdish civilians were subjected to chemical attacks by Saddam’s forces.

Taking action to rescue the Kurdish population now at risk from the IS offensive is a concrete and immediate way to demonstrate America’s mettle to IS. Washington appears to be excessively mindful of Turkish sensitivities. Turkey is in a real jam here; some 150,000 refugees have crossed the border in the past two weeks. Many more are sure to follow. Turkey has elected to remain on the sidelines of the fight against IS even though it is widely acknowledged, by Vice President Biden no less, that the Turks have provided extensive support infrastructure for jihadists of all stripes on its soil. Ankara’s overconfidence about managing the Syrian conflict has backfired; IS is quite capable of creating havoc in Turkey if it chooses to do so.

It is more likely, however, that Turkey’s leaders are worried about the emergence of a strong Kurdish entity in Syria under the leadership of the Syrian Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which seeks to imitate the achievements of Iraqi Kurds. The latter enjoy their own legally established and internationally recognized autonomous region. The attendant risks of the Turkish Kurdish minority’s bearing witness as the Syrian Kurds also gain autonomy are too enormous for Ankara to contemplate. Turkish timing could not be worse: the Ankara government is engaged in peace talks with the Turkish-Kurdish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody insurgency since 1984. Making matters worse, the PYD is an offshoot, some say a wholly owned subsidiary, of the PKK. The strengthening of the PYD, in other words, could well serve to improve the PKK’s bargaining position.

Both Turkey and the U.S. have the PKK on their official terrorism lists. Should the U.S. give support to a militia affiliated with a group on the State Department’s terrorism list? The lawyers at the Pentagon, State Department, and the White House can have a field day arguing about this, but time is of essence here, and the limited U.S. strikes around Kobani already appear to have spoken to that issue. However, the few strikes in support of Kobani’s defenders have been timid and insufficient. The U.S. has the capacity to ramp them up.

Paradoxically, only a few weeks ago when members of the Yazidi minority in Iraq were besieged at the top of a mountain in Sinjar and faced annihilation, Washington bombed IS forces attacking it. However, on the ground it was PYD and PKK forces that punched a hole through IS positions to help rescue the Yazidis. In effect, therefore, there is already an instance of indirect collaboration between the U.S. and the PYD.

American timidity in striking IS in Kobani and Turkish obstructionism are shortsighted. The fall of Kobani will have a devastating impact on Kurds in the broader region. Already Turkish Kurds are convinced that Ankara prefers to shoulder the attendant costs of letting Kobani fall in the form of additional refugees flows, rather than incurring the long-term strategic impact of an autonomous PYD-run region. Erdogan’s government may also think it can contain the resulting fallout on the peace process with the PKK, but it is likely to be surprised if the PKK loses control over enraged youthful Kurdish populations. Unrest in Turkish Kurdish provinces is spreading as curfews have been declared in two provinces. Iraqi Kurds, who have had excellent relations with Turkey, feel backstabbed. They have bitterly complained about Turkish indifference to their pleas for help when IS overwhelmed their positions.

The Obama Administration, with its recent pronouncements and initial strikes, has elevated IS’s worldwide stature. Whether one agrees or disagrees with this decision, the die has been cast. The U.S. cannot pick and choose where it intervenes when actual massacres of innocent populations are concerned. And if it tarries much longer, it may well find the credibility of its anti-IS strategy in both Syria and Iraq fatally compromised.

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University. Eric S. Edelman is a former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and was Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, 2005–09.

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