Don’t Blame Turkey for “Dragging Its Feet” in Syria

Expecting Turkey to come to the aid of Kurdish separatists without a plan to remove Bashar Assad is unreasonable.

American defense secretary Chuck Hagel and Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu meet at the Pentagon in Washington DC, November 18, 2013
American defense secretary Chuck Hagel and Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu meet at the Pentagon in Washington DC, November 18, 2013 (DoD/Sergeant Aaron Hostutler)

Turkey’s reluctance to be drawn into the war against the Islamic State should hardly surprise American policymakers. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made it plain just last month that his country can only support such a strategy if it simultaneously seeks to dislodge the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the United States want Turkey to take “stronger action against the Islamic State” — and leave the fight against Assad out of it.

One administration official anonymously chastised the Turks for “dragging their feet” and refusing to intervene when Islamic State militants threaten to overrun the Syrian town of Kobanî, just south of the Turkish border.

“After all the fulminating about Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe, they’re inventing reasons not to act to avoid another catastrophe,” the official said.

Except Turkey doesn’t have to invent reasons. It has very good reasons to be hesitant about moving its own troops into Syria.

As the Turks see it, battling the Islamic State — a jihadist outfit that controls swathes of territory in an arc from Aleppo in northwestern Syria to Baghdad, the capital of Iraq — is close to futile when Assad is “left out of it,” as the Times put it.

It was Assad, Erdoğan told PBS’ Charlie Rose last month, “who prepared the ground for this.” He not only focused his army on suppressing the relatively moderate rebellion against his minority Alawite regime in the south of the country while leaving radical Islamists to roam free in the north; there is evidence his intelligence and security apparatus actively enabled the Sunni insurgency that spawned into the Islamic State.

The Americans and their allies from the Arab Gulf states and Europe may cut off the head of the snake when they bombard Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria but those are only the worst things to come out of the policies of Syria — and its ally Iran. Even if the Islamic State were altogether devastated, Turkey has good reason to fear, as Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, wrote last month, that its NATO allies will then “declare ‘mission accomplished’ and pack up and leave” — leaving it with two failed states, Iraq and Syria, on its frontier.

Moreover, the Syrian Civil War has exacerbated Turkish internal security threats. As The American Interest‘s Adam Garfinkle points out, the militants defending Kobanî are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant organization that is better known by its Kurdish acronym, PKK. Although Erdoğan’s government has sought rapprochement with the Kurds, it can ill afford to come to the rescue of what it still considers a terrorist organization. America won’t team up with Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate either to fight the Islamic State, even if they both are.

Turkey’s Kurdish policy in recent years has been to improve relations with Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party in northern Iraq. While advocating Kurdish independence, his is a moderate and pragmatic party that has focused on building the state institutions Iraq’s Kurds needed in order to one day secede from country. But even as Iraq falls apart, it is still reluctant to declare independence outright.

The PKK has no such qualms and for Turkey to support it against Islamic State militants who have no immediate designs on Turkish territory would be risky at best.

On the other hand, if the Turks don’t intervene and Kobanî does fall, the entire Turkish-Syrian border could come under pressure from Islamic State fighters who then might turn their guns on an American ally after all. Or as Garfinkle puts it, “the Turks are screwed if they do and screwed if they don’t.”

So perhaps they are dragging their feet. But can you blame them?