The U.S. & Turkey: Overcoming Unaligned Interests in Syria
October 14, 2014
Ambassador Eric Edelman, Co-chair, BPC’s Turkey Initiative
Dr. Henri Barkey, Professor of International Relations, Lehigh University
As a member of NATO as well as the largest democracy in the Middle East, Turkey has the potential to be both a symbolic and strategic partner in the U.S.’ fight against the Islamic State (IS).
Three years ago, when the Syrian revolution was still largely peaceful, Turkish and U.S. policies were complementary. Both countries publicly demanded that President Bashar al-Assad respect the will of his people, grant them greater political freedoms, and, when violence escalated, that he step down from power. In pursuit of this shared goal, Turkey was instrumental in assembling a host of Syrian political and military personnel who had defected from the Assad regime, helping build up and organize a credible opposition force in the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Despite these initial shows of unity, Turkish and American policies have since drastically diverged as the civil war in Syria has intensified. With the U.S. failing to act on previously declared “red-lines,” and the FSA proving to be less than effective in combat, both Dr. Barkey and Ambassador Edelman explained that Turkey has been forced to pursue other partners who could topple Assad. Unable to work with the Syrian Kurds out of fear that bolstering them might in turn strengthen Turkey’s own Kurdistan Worker Part (PKK) – the U.S. and Turkey both view the PKK as a terrorist organization– both speakers assert that Turkey has become a “conduit for all types of Jihadists,” since their subtle backing of the al-Nusra Front.
Although Turkey denies supporting the al-Nusra Front, IS, or any Jihadist fighters, Ambassador Edelman was adamant that U.S. intelligence has evidence to the contrary. Although it may not have given direct assistance to a particular group, Turkey has, at the very least turned, a blind-eye to the fighters and weapons crossing over its borders. However, this is hardly surprising to Ambassador Edelman. Not only is Turkey dealing with a full blown war on its borders, it is caring for over one million Syrian refugees – second only to Jordan – and is also negotiating with the PKK to end its decade long conflict. Ambassador Edelman recognizes that, although combatting IS has become the top priority for the U.S. following the beheading of two American journalists, for Turkish leaders, IS is only “one of several problems…and is not the highest on their agenda.”
As a member of the Middle East region, Turkey has to live with the consequences of what happens in Syria and Iraq. For this reason it is trying to assemble a calculated and pragmatic strategy that doesn’t entirely favor a single group. Although Turkey has joined the U.S. led coalition, it has refused to open its airbases to Western aircrafts, so as not to draw reprisal attacks from jihadist militants. Similarly, in the predominantly Kurdish border town of Kobane – located within sight of the Turkish boarder – Turkey has deployed soldiers and armored vehicles and stated that it would not let the city fall. As of yet, it has been content with watching Kurdish and IS forces further engage one another.
Although perhaps pragmatic, Turkey’s strategy is dangerous. As Ambassador Edelman noted, the country’s strategy surrounding Kobane has so far only succeeded in stirring up Kurdish resentment against the government. Further, the country’s half-hearted participation in the U.S. coalition is not winning it any international friends and only hurting what was a previously valued relationship between Turkey and other Western democracies.
No matter how one looks at it, the war in Syria will have a negative effect on Turkey. With the conflict seemingly destined to continue into the foreseeable future, Turkey will be forced to continue caring for an increasing number of refugees. Rather than pursue a course of inaction, the country could perhaps alleviate the burden by working with coalition forces to carve out a buffer zone in northern Syria. Over the past few years, Turkey has seen that it cannot simply pick the winners and losers in Syria. In order to reach a sustainable conclusion, it must commit to a position, expend the necessary resources and effort, and actively work with partners to achieve mutually beneficial goals. In this situation Turkey cannot succeed alone; partnership is needed.