The U.S. picked the wrong ally in the fight against Islamic State

August 4, 2015
Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives his speech at the National People's Congress (NPC) in Algiers

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the National People’s Congress in Algiers, June 4, 2013. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi

When Turkey finally agreed to join U.S.-led efforts to fight Islamic State, Ankara was supposed to make the battle against the extremist group more effective. Yet within days, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, bombed not just Islamic State forces but also, with even greater fervor, the one group showing some success in keeping them at bay: the Kurds.

The United States miscalculated by bringing in Erdogan. Turkey’s embattled and volatile leader looks far less interested in combating Islamic State than in reclaiming his power at home. Erdogan’s personal agenda, however, cannot be allowed to alienate U.S. partners and prolong the conflict.

Washington’s first priority here should be to preserve its constructive alliances with Kurdish groups in the fight against Islamic State. It must also prevent Turkey from further undermining the key strategic goal of defeating the jihadists.

So U.S. officials should be taking a far stronger stance against Erdogan’s attacks on the Kurds. One complicating factor is that both Ankara and Washington have labeled the target of Turkish operations — the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — a terrorist organization. But there are related Kurdish organizations that U.S. leaders can and should approach, publicly reassure and privately work with to maintain their cooperation against Islamic State.

First, the Syrian Kurdish political movement, the Democratic Union Party, though ideologically related to the PKK, is considered a separate organization and not designated as a terrorist group under U.S. law. Its leader, Saleh Muslim, should be invited to Washington expeditiously for high-level consultations with government officials. These meetings could publicly demonstrate Washington’s continued commitment to the Syrian Kurds.

The leader of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples' Democratic Party Selahattin Demirtas answers a question during an interview with Reuters in Ankara

Selahattin Demirtas, leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, during an interview with Reuters in Ankara, July 30, 2015. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Second, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, is increasingly popular because it represents the aspirations of the vast majority of Turkey’s Kurds to reach a peaceful solution to the long civil conflict, as well as many Turks who want a more democratic, liberal Turkey. The party’s success in the June general elections was tremendous; it won seats in parliament for the first time. Yet the government has recently opened an investigation into the party’s leader, Selahattin Demirtas, that many critics say is politically motivated. The U.S. ambassador to Turkey should meet with Demirtas and express Washington’s continued support for concluding a peace process between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party.

Third, the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq remains the most important of all the Kurdish factions. It might also be least likely to abandon the anti-Islamic State coalition over Turkish actions because of its close economic ties to Ankara and ideological opposition to the PKK. But if the regional government were to abandon the coalition, U.S. forces could lose access to critical operational, planning and intelligence facilities. So U.S. officials would do well to reassure Kurdish leaders of Washington’s commitment to their safety. They should also agree on a joint approach to pressure Erdogan to end his campaign against the PKK.

Another priority for U.S. officials should be to remove Erdogan’s motivation for attacking the Kurdistan Workers Party: political survival.

In June, Turkish voters handed Erdogan a significant defeat. His Justice and Development Party, after 12 years of single-party rule, failed to secure even a simple majority in parliament. Ever since, Erdogan had been searching for an excuse to call early elections and cajole the voters who deserted him to return to the fold. War offered the perfect opportunity.

Turkey, Erdogan told the nation, is under siege, its enemies legion. He has positioned himself as the only leader capable of protecting his people. He has also presented himself as an important and respected player on the world stage after striking a deal with the United States and getting North Atlantic Treaty Organization support for his war.

By denying Erdogan’s campaign any imprimatur of international legitimacy, the United States could begin to cut down on the political benefit he is seeking to accrue. This could mean U.S. officials openly questioning Turkey’s attack on the PKK and highlighting how it jeopardizes the mission against Islamic State — and therefore Turkish lives — rather than suggesting that the two are merely “coincidental.” The United States should be prepared to go a step further and speak frankly about the many concerns that have arisen in the U.S.-Turkish relationship during Erdogan’s administration.

Washington has continually overlooked Erdogan’s growing list of political and strategic sins –including jailing journalists at home and supporting extremists in Syria — in the hope that, when it really needed him, he would rise to the occasion. There has been no greater need for Turkey than in the fight against Islamic State. Yet after displaying reluctance to join the fight for 10 months, Erdogan has placed his own ambitions ahead of his country’s and his allies’ interests.

There is no good reason for U.S. officials to continue biting their tongues regarding Erdogan’s dictatorial tendencies and his rejection of Turkey’s traditional Western orientation.

It might have been a miscalculation to bring Erdogan into this conflict. But if the United States could stick by its Kurdish partners and chastise Erdogan’s recklessness, he might realize that he is the one who has finally overplayed his hand.

25 comments

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Right on the mark, but unfortunately the US has a president who is too naive and too incompetent to pick the right ally. He was wrong with Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Palestine, and now he is making an even bigger mistake in siding with Turkey against the Kurds.

Posted by SamJunks | Report as abusive

Your making the assumption that the US intent is to deescalate the turmoil in the region. I think that is incorrect.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

PKK is a terrorist organization that has attacked Turkey for thirty years…they are far more entrenched in their terror campaign against Turkey than our US issues iwth ISIS, Al Qaeda, The Haqqani Network, and Boko Haraam all comnbined.

Get off your high horse and look at reality on the ground.

Posted by AbdullahMikail | Report as abusive

@AbdullahMikail Do you live in that area? Those who do tell a different story.

Posted by JonL999 | Report as abusive

Erdogan clearly prefers Isis to PKK. Idiot.

Posted by tribeUS | Report as abusive

Washington’s brain-dead foreign policy:

a) If you aren’t with us, you’re our enemy.
b) The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Posted by Donquixote2u | Report as abusive

Lasting peace in the region requires the inclusion of the Kurdish people and the defeat of ISIS. Erdogan is a hindrance to both.

Posted by jrm102 | Report as abusive

No $h1t: “The United States miscalculated by bringing in Erdogan. Turkey’s embattled and volatile leader looks far less interested in combating Islamic State than in reclaiming his power at home. Erdogan’s personal agenda, however, cannot be allowed to alienate U.S. partners and prolong the conflict.”

Do we have any thoughtful people left in Washington? I can probably count them on my two hands.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive

For the thoughtful people left in Washington, I would propose:

1) Stop whatever you are doing, because most of America perceives that as harmful, given the overall results..
2) Write a letter to each of your contributors/benefactors and tell them you are “off the hook.” Meaning you owe them nothing, and, the American people will back you up with legislation prohibiting any contributor from ever suing you now, or, in the future if you participate in collaborative sessions (see 3-4).
3) Take a few weeks to learn from your peers. What are their insights, successes, and failures. It’s your time to learn and share with impunity.
4) Brainstorm solutions, filter them, and get behind every other government employee promoting good solutions–regardless of politics, gender, race, age, sexual preference, education, assets, health, genetics, S.A.T., A.C.T., height, weight, body mass, flexibility, carbon intake, solar use as a percent of carbon use, etc.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive

OhBummer

Posted by summerofgeorge | Report as abusive

To think that you can defeat ISIS and continue to advocate the overthrow of Assad is a truly idiotic policy. It really does not matter whether we have Turkey on board or not, the whole policy that is being advocated by the West is doomed to fail!!!

Remember Iraq…………

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

The author, like his neo-con friends who convinced the then POTUS in 2002 to invade Iraq and thereby helped the Irani influence in the region to expand, while simultaneously causing the near-bankruptcy of the US in 2008, is totally ignorant about the peoples of the Middle East. The YPG forces that he is so proud of in calling them “allies”, ARE the PKK terrorists in a slightly different uniform. They are only capable of doing hit-and-run operations and using IED devices against the Turkish Army. With friends like these, you do not need enemies.

Posted by localmichael | Report as abusive

Erdogan is smart.He kills two birds with one throw.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

I loved Obama.Not any more.Mistakes after mistakes.Assad is going to be a black dot of his legend.He has underestimated Assad along with Russia and Iran when he said “Assad must go”Obama is in real fix from all sides.Russia,Iran,Syria and Talebans of Afghanistan.
With whom he befriended to fight ISIS,now he is killing them in Syria.It’s a real mess.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

I don’t understand why Obama is after Assad.On his insistence he removed his WMD.He conducted fresh election.Obama can not export democracy of his own definition and his double standard for Russia ,Saudi Arabia and China.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

The Turkish Government under anti-western mentality of Erdugan was always supporting ISIS throughout the last year. There is no doubt that the Turkish intelligence agency was behind the massacre of 30 Kurdish civil activists in Suruc city. This massacre was planned by the Turkish government to break down the peace process in Turkey. The Turkish government was never been serious to find a solution for the biggest case in Turkey which is the Kurdish case. The peace process was taken seriously only by PKK but was never been taken by the Turkish politicians seriously but only to show to the European union that Turkey is in a democratic process while Turkey the reality is a the Turkish government is always dominated by chauvinists throughout the last 100 years.
Now US is still supporting the policy of denying Kurish rights in the whole Kurdistan and fueling the dictatorship of the Turkish chauvinists against Kurds. The US will betray Kurds again and the US will go to be against the biggest nation on the world seeking their rights to be independent and free. The US under the presidency of a confused government will be on the side of ISIS and Tureky against secularism in the middle east. Congratulation for the US to fight beside ISIS and Turkey against the Kurdish women and men fighters very soon.

Posted by Malcony | Report as abusive

gentalman writes: “I don’t understand why Obama is after Assad.”

He’s not. If Obama was after Assad, Assad would be dead by now. We allow Assad to live, and Assad lives at our will.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Muslims would fight over a dismembered goat hoof. There is no peace among these petty men.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Solidar makes a solid point. Maybe the answer in the Middle East is to remove all males from the negotiating process. Move them on to their Cazbars to share goat stew and empower the women of the desert lands, who often appear to suffer the greatest indecencies, to facilitate the negotiation process towards peace.

Posted by fyaox | Report as abusive

Totally accurate and correct. Turkey is absolutely the wrong partner here and has weakened the fight against ISIS/ISIL by attacking the sole effective U.S. allies in the region.. namely the Kurds. Absolutely ridiculous. Once again Obama and Kerry show they have no grasp of what is happening on the ground.

Posted by vzaitsez | Report as abusive

The part I dont understand is why the PKK is outlawed. When did attacking Turkey become a bad thing? Maybe we need to rethink this fundamental assumption. The whole reason we put Turkey into NATO was because they used to follow orders when the US wanted something done. Those days are over. Just kick them out of NATO and put Erdogan and his party on the terrorist list. Turkey is a problem that could be solved with some drone attacks. Let them back into NATO when the country learns how to behave.

Posted by JeffHB | Report as abusive

Erdogan is an Islamist. Don’t expect him to behave like a democratic leader.

Posted by Loveoneanoter | Report as abusive

The Ottoman Empire=Turkey today/ was just like ISIS. That’s how they/the Turks ruled for centuries in Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, the Balkans and everywhere else. Turkey was back then and still is today Brutal and barbaric like ISIS.

Posted by Loveoneanoter | Report as abusive

How come America never supported the Kurdish opposition against Turkish brutalities and human rights violations?
US should impose sanctions on Turkey for its brutal human rights abuses.

Posted by Loveoneanoter | Report as abusive

Hey Solidar, how are them Native Americans doing…oh wait, sorry, my bad….how are the blacks? still getting shot?……How’s the gender wage differential? hang in there

Posted by Bhodges | Report as abusive