It only took a dozen years, but we might finally have the answer to the question, “What would the Iraq War’s early days have looked like had Turkey joined the U.S.-led coalition in 2003?” If the last two weeks are any indication, we should be relieved the Turks punted the first time around.
One can understand the logic of U.S. efforts in recent weeks to incorporate Turkey in the anti-ISIS coalition—and the U.S. excitement at the Turks’ agreement to join. As the coalition intensifies its activity, the Turks provide the United States with use of Incirlik Air Base and greater support in the fight against ISIS. Except by now it must be clear that, in exchange, the Turks gain cover to expend the bulk of their efforts on a different war—one including a military component against the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a political component against the Kurdish-supported, duly elected People’s Democratic Party (HDP).
The particulars of this latest Turkey-PKK flare-up have been well covered. Two weeks ago, in the town of Suruç, a suicide bomber killed 33 young socialist Kurds preparing to aid reconstruction efforts in the formerly ISIS-besieged town of Kobani. Though it was claimed the attacker was affiliated with ISIS, the PKK—in a stunningly foolish move—blamed the Turkish government for supporting ISIS and claimed credit for killing two police officers in retaliation. In so doing, the PKK gave Turkey all the pretext it needed to resume bombing PKK strongholds, rendering meaningless whatever remained of the more than two-year ceasefire.
The U.S., whose fight against ISIS is strengthened by the agreement with Turkey, has every reason to distance itself from renewed Turkey-PKK hostilities. Access to Incirlik—from which armed flights began last Tuesday—diversifies U.S. military options against ISIS, due to the air base’s close proximity to the conflict. Turkey’s apparent newfound determination to control its borders and prevent the free flow of militants might be even more important.
So it was not surprising to see Ambassador Brett McGurk, who serves as Deputy Presidential Envoy for the global coalition against ISIS, appear on Charlie Rose to clarify that the discussions with Turkey that produced this agreement predated Turkey’s decision to reengage the PKK militarily, and thus the two developments were unrelated.
That might be a sufficient response if Turkey were narrowly striking PKK targets and calling for a return to peace talks. But President Erdoğan, ever the keen political opportunist, sensed an opening to alter the political landscape. Erdogan has tarred the violence-rejecting, democratically-elected HDP as a mere PKK front, called for the stripping of some HDP deputies of parliamentary immunity, and directed the prosecutor’s office to take formal steps to charge HDP parliamentarians. The government arrested the Mayor of Lice in the southeast on terrorism charges. All the while, the HDP roundly criticized the return to violence and implored both the government and the PKK to return to peace talks.
Alarmingly, Erdogan’s directives come as Turkey is administered by a caretaker AKP government—one not representative of the recent Turkish election results. The seemingly encouraging signs of an AKP-CHP grand coalition are all but dead. New elections in the fall look increasingly likely. Instead of preparing for elections, however, Erdogan’s AKP has launched a political inquisition into the HDP that—if pursued further—could embitter and disillusion a new generation of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens.
The caretaker government’s mischief is not confined to Turkey alone. Turkey’s strikes have focused heavily on the PKK’s Qandil strongholds across the border with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, placing the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)—nominally a Turkish and U.S. ally—in an impossible position. The KRG lacks the ability to root the PKK out of its mountain safe havens, and the Iraqi Kurdish citizenry is sympathetic to the PKK cause. Meanwhile, the PKK retaliates against Turkey by blowing up pipelines—which damages the KRG far more than it does Turkey. The Turkey-PKK conflict also amplifies the domestic political friction between the KRG’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and its opposition rivals.
Turkey’s airstrikes—if we are to believe Syrian Kurdish opposition reports—have also struck Kurdish forces across the Syrian border. The Syrian Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) put out a statement criticizing Turkey’s strikes, reiterating that the YPG plays a key role in the coalition’s anti-ISIS efforts. The YPG, in a show of diplomacy, requested a coalition response.
What the U.S. has defended as a domestic Turkish fight against terrorism has sucked in two key U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS.
The U.S. also underestimates the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding across Turkey’s border in Syria. Turkey has publicly announced that an operational goal is to create a “safe zone” that will be cleared of ISIS and transferred to Syrian rebel groups. While the U.S. has ignored the talk as mere rhetoric and posturing, the Turks have reiterated the term to smooth the political path toward returning some of the nearly two million Syrian refugees back across the border. The zone may ultimately be ISIS-free, but it will remain an active conflict area for the foreseeable future.
Turkey’s efforts in support of refugees have been courageous, but they were also self-serving politically, coming as they did during the period when Turkey believed it would lead the new Middle East. Turkey has spent astounding sums on refugees, and tensions in the country’s southeast run high.
For their parts, the U.S. and Europe have done precious little to alleviate Turkey’s refugee burden—largely ignoring the magnitude of human suffering and political turmoil caused by displaced civilians. Of course the AKP caretaker government would be relieved to move refugees back to Syria, and it propagates the “safe zone” legal fiction to circumvent the international principle of non-refoulement. U.S. policymakers must recognize Turkey’s intent and address the refugee crisis directly.
The U.S. strategy seems to lack coherence. The administration endorses Turkey’s fight against the PKK, while maintaining its close air support for the PYD in Syrian Kurdistan. Reports out of Ankara indicate that Turkey may concede to using Incirlik for U.S. air support of PYD-controlled areas, but nothing is certain until the deal is finalized this week. If the U.S.-led coalition does not secure the right to defend Syrian Kurdistan from Incirlik, it will in essence run two parallel anti-ISIS campaigns—one out of Incirlik in coordination with the Turks, and the other out of the Gulf in support of the Syrian Kurdish blocs. It’s a strategy that would invite peril.
We might forgive the administration for not anticipating the knock-on effects of this deal. It was a diplomatic and strategic win that seemed to bode well for the fight against ISIS. However, now that Turkey has revealed its underlying objectives, the administration must swiftly correct course.
The administration should stress the importance of ceasing the futile tit-for-tat against the PKK and of returning to peace talks. The U.S. should insist that Turkey cease hitting Qandil—if only to decrease pressure on the KRG.
Most importantly, the U.S. must stop providing the AKP easy cover for its sweeping, chaos-inducing, and destructive domestic anti-Kurdish campaign. Even Incirlik isn’t worth all that.