Turkey continues to balk at supporting Kurdish militants in Syria who are trying to reverse the advance of fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a group bent on establishing a caliphate across the entire Middle East. Hence, one wonders what type of endgame the Turks have in mind, which might simply be to keep Assad’s Alawite regime bottled up while praying ISIL refrains from turning on Turkey.
Although Turkey agreed on Wednesday to allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to traverse its borders into Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was critical of the U.S. for airdropping weapons into the hands of fighters from the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a 30-year long insurgency against Turkey. It also bears mentioning that according to former ambassador Peter Van Buren in a piece for TomDispatch.com, U.S., NATO and the EU have all classified the PKK as a terrorist organization, so Erdogan’s concerns aren’t necessarily without merit.
Turkey’s animus towards the PKK runs deep, as exhibited earlier this month when Erdogan equated the Kurdish rebel group with ISIL, saying that “it was erroneous to consider and regard them separately.” Conversely, a number of Kurds have accused Turkey of being in league with the Islamists, which they believe is evidenced by Ankara’s reluctance to assist the anti-ISIL coalition.
Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have for years backed the Syrian opposition but have also been criticized for supporting the al-Nusra Front, the majority of whose fighters, according to the wire service ANSA, later joined the ranks of ISIL.
Van Buren also indicated that while Turkey’s ruling party isn’t exactly in love with ISIL, “its loathing for Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad is such that its leaders have long been willing to assist IS[IL] largely by looking the other way.” Turkey has also been accused of allowing foreign fighters to enter Syria in addition to acting as an exit point for the up to $2 million a day worth of black market oil that fuels the ISIL movement.
The latest struggle in Kobani, a Syrian town near the Turkish border, has epitomized Turkey’s attitude towards the situation. Van Buren illustrates the extent to which the Turks have refused to aid Syrian Kurds thus far, alleging that, “Turkish tanks sit idle on hills overlooking the hand-to-hand combat less than a mile away.”
Part of the problem is that the U.S. has made the Kurds the centerpiece of its strategy to defeat ISIL in Syria, which Turkey fears will empower and strengthen Kurdish elements that want to overthrow the Turkish state.
Defense analyst Ivan Eland recommends that the U.S. simply defend Turkey with airstrikes should ISIL attack, otherwise wish Turkey good luck in dealing with its own regional threats. Eland also directly answers the operating question posed in this piece:
“Turkey is not helping the desperate Kurds against ISIS across the border in Syria, because it fears the Kurds more than it does ISIS.”
Justin Raimondo in Antiwar.com points out that the U.S. strategy of arming and training Kurds and trying to build a competent and unified Iraqi security force to defeat ISIL, is untenable and will take more time than we have. U.S. airstrikes alone will not do the job, as the Pentagon itself has proclaimed time and again, especially without substantial ground support. So Raimondo suggests a solution proffered by Council of Foreign Relations president Leslie Gelb, who is certainly no dove:
[T]he only way to check ISIS, as the self-declared caliphate is widely known, is for the United States to work with Bashar Assad’s Syria, and with Iran. It is a tricky and perilous path, but there are no realistic alternatives.
Gelb believes only Syria and Iran can provide “plausible ground forces in short order.” Syria has 100,000 troops and 300 jets while Iran’s forces are even more potent, the combination of which ISIL’s 30,000 or so fighters could never compete with. He points out that “ISIS and Tehran are natural enemies,” while underling the reality that “Iraq’s closest ally isn’t the U.S., it’s Iran.”
Yet the U.S. has already said “Assad must go,” and dare not lose face by stepping down from such a position. Plus, the U.S. would never condone the West’s archenemy Iran being part of any solution.
So, Turkey probably does fear the Kurds more than ISIL, and without Ankara’s full cooperation in both arms and spirit, it is hard to envision the American Kurd strategy working. But it is also hard to imagine the U.S. withdrawing from the region and allowing the Sunni and Shia to sort things out amongst themselves. Tragically, letting those most threatened by ISIL do the heavy lifting, regardless how logical, would likely never be seriously entertained in Washington — likely not for a second