Turkey has been unwilling to intervene in the battle in the Syrian border town of Kobani, causing frustration and exposing a fundamental disagreement between allies over how to confront the extremist group calling itself the Islamic State.
Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has maintained a passive role while the US has ramped up airstrikes in and around the town on targets held by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Turkey is reluctant to intervene for a couple of reasons — first, because it is in an ongoing strife with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is linked to the militias under attack by ISIS in Kobani. The PKK is classified as a terrorist organisation by the US. And though it is currently engaged in peace talks with the Turkish government, the sting of a 30-year conflict between the groups lingers.
When Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby bemoaned the lack of ground partners in Syria on Tuesday, he should have said, “We have no effective partner on the ground that is politically palatable to the Turks,” suggested Garrett Khoury, the director of research at the Eastern Project.
“We’re stuck in an awkward situation because the People’s Protection Units (YPG), who are the main Kurdish force in Syria, are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist group by the US and Turkey due to its war with 30-year long ongoing conflict with Turkey,” Khoury said.
“There are no flaws in the administration’s strategy for the simple reason that you need to have a strategy in order for it to have flaws. Recent comments, including those of Rear Admiral Kirby, are particularly interesting because of their efforts to downplay the significance of Kobane. It sounds more like the administration trying to comfort itself than present a realistic view of what’s going on in Syria.”
The second reason Turkey is reluctant to engage deeper in the fight against ISIS — it wants the US-led coalition to commit to ousting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That’s a step the US has been reluctant to commit to during Syria’s three-plus-year civil war.
But Turkey’s government believes the cycle will repeat itself even if ISIS is defeated — Assad will foster the rise of extremist groups, protecting his own stranglehold on power while the groups present a fundamental threat to the West and their allies.
Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, told Business Insider the context of the entire conflict shouldn’t be forgotten.
“There’s no question that isis advances on Kobani are a serious problem, most importantly in the social instability we’re now seeing among the Kurdish population in Turkey,” Bremmer said. “But it’s equally clear that the Turkish government has the most to lose here, by a long shot, and their response thus far has been strong reluctance to get directly involved in the fight. Which tells you something about the level of threat the Turks actually feel here, as well as how concerned the Americans should be about not immediately jumping in and committing further military engagement.”
“Having said all that, the world has stood by over three years of a war in Syria with far more calamitous results to the civilian population. It’s important to keep this in context.”
In an attempt to smooth out relations and find some common ground, President Barack Obama dispatched retired Gen. John Allen, the administration’s special envoy for the coalition to counter ISIS, to meet with Turkish officials on Thursday.
The State Department said Allen and Brett McGurk, the deputy special envoy, held “constructive and detailed talks.” The State Department did not read out any specific new steps of involvement from Turkey, but said Allen and McGurk did discuss “several measures to advance the military line of effort against ISIL.” The administration also made a point of noting it supports ousting Assad, though it reiterated the best way to do that would be through a political settlement.
“They further stressed that strengthening the moderate Syrian opposition, which is engaged in fighting both ISIL and the Assad regime, is crucial to any realistic and lasting political settlement of the Syrian crisis,” the State Department statement read.
But for now, both the US and Turkey have begun publicly bracing for the fall of Kobani to ISIS. And there are some, even on the US side, who believe Obama should commit further to one of Turkey’s conditions — ousting Assad.
Sens. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), two of Obama’s most frequent foreign-policy critics, said the growing criticism of Turkey for failing to act on behalf of Kobani doesn’t reflect the “reality on the ground” — that both ISIS and Assad must be defeated for the region to fundamentally change.
“We are confident that if President Obama adopted a strategy took the steps that Turkish leaders are advocating to deal with Assad as well as ISIS, he would have significant support from our regional partners, including Turkish military involvement, which can be so important to success,” McCain and Graham said.
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