Talking Turkey on ISIS, the Kurds, and Kobani

by Derek Davison

Turkey, nominally a member of America’s new anti-ISIS coalition (well, maybe), has for some time now been refusing to allow Kurdish reinforcements and weapons to cross its Syrian border into the besieged city of Kobani. Due to its resistance to even allowing assistance to cross into Kobani, Turkey has faced large Kurdish protests in several cities, to which it has responded in occasionally brutal fashion. Yesterday, Turkey escalated this Kurdish crisis by shelling positions connected to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in the southeastern part of the country, supposedly in response to a PKK attack on an army outpost in Hakkari. The PKK is affiliated with the Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG), the group currently trying to defend Kobani from Daesh (ISIS or ISIL). For a country that seemed on the verge of joining an anti-ISIS coalition just a few days ago, the decision to bomb Kurds, rather than Daesh, is naturally raising some eyebrows.

The PKK shelling comes only about a day after Turkey publicly denied that it has given the US permission to use its Incirlik air base to launch sorties against Daesh and al-Qaeda/Jabhat al-Nusra targets in Syria, which directly contradicts earlier US reports. Talks are ongoing with respect to the use of Incirlik, with new President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government still insisting, more or less, that it won’t seriously get involved in Syria unless the coalition turns its real focus to getting rid of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey is its own nation with its own national priorities, and it has never been shy about the fact that its number one priority is making sure its Kurdish population doesn’t get any funny ideas about independence.

Turkey’s real rooting interest in Syria is against the YPG and other Syrian Kurds. The fact that Iraqi Kurds have achieved significant autonomy from Baghdad is worrying enough to Ankara; if Syria’s Kurds achieve a similar level of autonomy, the Turks believe that their Kurdish population will try to follow suit. Assad is thus their main target, not Sunni extremists like Daesh, because Assad has been allied with Syria’s Kurds throughout the country’s more than three-year-long civil war, and has been ceding increased autonomy to them. For added measure, the Turks argue that, while they’re as opposed to Daesh and similar groups as anybody, those groups can’t be removed from Syria until Assad is ousted, since the Syrian dictator has been propping up extremists all this time as a counterweight to more moderate opposition groups. The Turks have a point here, or would have had one if this were 2012 or 2013, but now it seems that Daesh is standing up pretty well on its own and is an immediate enough threat to Iraq that diverting coalition resources to unseating Assad could actually be counterproductive to the goal of degrading Daesh.

So the question of the day for America’s foreign policy establishment, particularly the neoconservative elements within it (who already oppose Erdogan’s government over its alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood and its tense relations with Israel), seems to be: “what can America do about Turkey?” It’s never considered sufficient to say, “well, that other country’s national interests just don’t coincide with America’s, and I guess we’ll have to adjust for that.” No, any failure on the part of another supposedly sovereign nation to recognize that America Is Exceptional And The Indispensable Nation is An Insult and Must Be Dealt With Harshly.

Turkey is a “non-ally” and America should move its regional military bases into Kurdish Iraq, says the Wall Street Journal, presumably because the Turks are refusing to commit their army to fighting a war on America’s behalf. US officials are reportedly angry because Turkey “want[s] the U.S. to come in and take care of the problem,” except, you know, the US is the one for whom “it” (Daesh) is apparently a problem, not the Turks. From the serious reactionaries we’re even hearing calls to “kick Turkey out of NATO,” a course of action for which NATO seems to have no precedent or procedure, and that, like most reactionary policy ideas, would create maximum disruption while accomplishing nothing constructive. Say NATO does kick Turkey out—what then? Do the Turks suddenly see the error of their ways and make amends? Why would they do that? What if NATO divides on the question of expelling Turkey? Is there any possible outcome of pursuing Turkey’s expulsion from NATO that would have a positive impact on the fight against ISIS?

The fact that Turkey would apparently rather let Daesh slaughter and enslave the Kurdish defenders of Kobani than do anything that might benefit long-term Kurdish political aims may be immoral, unconscionable, even indefensible on a humanitarian level, and it’s fine to condemn Turkey on those grounds, but as a pure calculation of national interest, what Turkey is doing shouldn’t surprise anybody. It’s not as though America hasn’t greatly wronged the Kurds in the past, when it was in US interests to do so. It’s also worth noting that the UK and Germany have also opted out of direct military involvement in Syria, but nobody seems to be talking about expelling them from NATO or moving American military hardware to other countries in Europe.

It may be that Turkey will still come around to America’s position on Daesh, or at least closer to it; recent Kurdish protests aside, Ankara’s Syria policy has been consistently unpopular within Turkey, and PKK threats to break-off peace talks with the government over its inaction in Kobani may yet force Erdogan’s hand. But if Erdogan is swayed, it will be because of domestic politics, not American pressure or threats.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. It’s time the U.S. gave up this idea that it knows what’s best for the M.E. The so-called experts on the subject, just keep doing stupid things. How anyone can believe that the present course of action will solve the problems said actions are supposed to solve, I have a good deal on a “bridge to far”. No body seems to know anything else but bomb, bomb, bomb. The various U.S. agencies create these situations, without really understand what they’re doing, unless it’s to keep the M.I.Complex in business. Exactly what has been accomplished since the turn of the century after 9-11, besides raping the U.S.Treasury? Time to call it quits and come home.

  2. Situation is fluid and dynamic and disengagement given US interests and leadership defacto role is not an option as we represent the interests of our friends and allies which are for the most part our own……..Iran,Russia,China want it(OIL,GAS),Turkey wants it(OTTOMAN DREAMING),We need to protect,Saudi,and Gulf states,we need to slow ISIS,we need to protect EU’s energy position versus Russia,s push.We can not abdicate.We have most to gain by competing and taking on chalenges objectively,patiently and decisevely.Our president has shown patience,a Brothehood bias and has lacked deciseveness,which has both damaged and helped our middle east policy.Israel,Egypt,Saudi, are an effectice anti Iran,alliance and Turkey as well.We are in this fight against radicalism weather we join it or not..

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