Geopolitics of lower energy prices

Oil prices are down by about 20% from their recent peak (or 15% from their three-year plateau around $100 per barrel) and likely to stay low for months if not years. Downward pressure will continue unless the Saudis are prepared to rein in their production (no sign of that yet) or prices decline enough (to $70 or less) to turn off the flow of  tight oil and gas in the US, which has become a major factor on world markets.

There is a lot of benefit to be seen from lower oil prices. From the US perspective, cutting revenue flow to the governments of Russia, Iran and Venezuela is a big plus. Putin, who is already feeling substantial pressure from European Union and US sanctions, faces serious financial difficulties. Iran, likewise hurt by sanctions, will find it difficult to generate anything like the revenue it needs to fund economic recovery, even if sanctions are lifted. Venezuela was already headed towards a financial crisis. Its budget is almost entirely dependent on oil revenue.

Major oil and gas producers in the Gulf will be hit as well. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates , Kuwait and Qatar as well as Iraq will feel the pinch. They are far more likely to cut their spending on various international causes than risk austerity at home. That could mean scarcer resources for the restored military autocracy in Egypt, Yemen’s besieged government and Syria’s opposition. It could also mean less revenue for Islamist extremists of various stripes, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, for which oil sales are a significant portion of revenue.

Lower oil prices will also give a boost to global economic growth, particularly in the US and Europe but also in China and India. The Economist worries that the lower prices may be due to slack economic growth and that lower prices will do little for consumers, but then it gives ample evidence that the lower prices are in fact due to higher production. If past patterns hold, global economic growth could gain by a significant 1% over current 3.3% predictions for 2015.

What has happened in the past couple of weeks is part of a broader secular trend that will have profound impacts on geopolitics and economics for a long time to come. Production of oil and gas is rising sharply in the Western Hemisphere, especially in the US, Canada and Brazil. Demand is rising principally in the East, where economic growth is strong, the economies are still heavily dependent on energy, and energy resources are scarce. This trend has implications for future security risks and burden sharing:  it will not make much sense for the US to carry most of the burden of ensuring the security of the strait of Hormuz when 90% or more of the oil shipped through this classic “choke point” is going to India, China and other Asian consumers.

Asian consumers should be stocking 90 days of imports, as members of the International Energy Agency are required to do. They should also be providing some of the naval assets to protect the strait of Hormuz. That will require a major rethink on the part of the US, as well as creation of a multinational force that the Asians can feel comfortable joining.

There are calls in Congress to curtail the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which is slated for use in an oil supply disruption. That would be an unwise move, as a major disruption of oil markets anywhere means a hike in prices everywhere. The US may be much less dependent on the Middle East in the future, but it will still be vulnerable to the economic damage of an oil supply interruption.

We have tended to view the rise of Asia as a challenge. But of course it is also an opportunity. The US will soon be the world’s largest oil and gas producer. If the Washington can continue to moderate American demand and in addition decides to allow oil and gas exports, the assumption of its declining influence could soon be proven, once again, a mirage.

Peace picks October 19-24

With apologies for the lateness:

  1. Operation Protective Edge: Legal and Political Implications of ICC Prosecution | Monday, October 20th | 4:00 – 6:30 | Arab Studies Institute | David J. Luban from Georgetown University, Georgetown Law Center, Margaret deGuzman from Temple University, Beasley School of Law George Bisharat from University of California, Hastings College of the Law, Noura Erakat  from George Mason University, New Century College and Kevin Jon Heller from  University of London, SOAS  will sit on a panel discussion on Israel’s offensive, Operation Protective Edge, against the Gaza Strip. This panel will explore the relevant legal questions under international criminal law as well as the political issues related to ICC accession by Palestine.
  2. U.S.–North Korea Nuclear Diplomacy: Lessons Learned and Next Steps  | Tuesday, October 21st | 10:00 – 11:30 | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | October 21 marks the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, which froze Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program in return for the provision of nuclear power reactors and the eventual normalization of ties with the U.S. In the decades since the Agreed Framework was struck and then subsequently unraveled, successive American presidential administrations seem to have exhausted available policy tools in an effort to curtail North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities. The speakers are Robert Gallucci, a distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University, Victor Ch, a senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as the director of Asian studies and D.S. Song-KF chair at Georgetown University, Sydney Seiler, a special envoy for the Six-Party Talks and Duyeon Kim, a associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  3. Rebuilding the Gaza Strip: Obstacles and Opportunities | Tuesday, October 21st | 12:00 – 1:00 | Middle East Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | MEI will host Gaza-based Rania Elhilou (ANERA) and Paul Butler (ANERA) for a discussion of the humanitarian and infrastructural costs of the recent Gaza conflict and steps needed to address the ongoing crisis.Nearly two months after the ceasefire, more than 100,000 people remain displaced due to the massive infrastructural damage to housing units, businesses, schools and clinics. Many more lack access to basic resources, including food, electricity and clean drinking water. Based on her observations from the ground, Elhilou will describe the conditions faced by Gaza residents, and how they are coping, while Butler will discuss the challenges to Gaza’s reconstruction. Middle East Institute scholar Ambassador Philip Wilcox will moderate the discussion.
  4. Iranian Policy toward the Iraqi and Syrian Crises | Tuesday, October 21st | 12:00 – 1:00 | Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars | Jubin Goodarzi, Deputy Head of the International Relations Department at Webster University in Geneva, Switzerland will speak at the event. Tehran has had a longstanding alliance with Damascus over the past 35 years, and its relations with Baghdad have steadily improved since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. This has resulted in close ties between Iran and these two key Arab states. However, this has all been called into question since the eruption of the Syrian revolt in 2011, and moreover, the recent rise of ISIS and its challenge to the Iraqi state. Iran has become heavily involved in both conflicts since it has much at stake. Jubin Goodarzi will provide an overview of the evolving situation and focus on Iran’s policies, perspectives, interests, and options in the ongoing Syrian and Iraqi crises.
  5. A Fresh Perspective on Tunisia | Wednesday, October 22nd | 10:00 – 11:30 | Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies | REGISTER TO ATTENDMondher Zenaidi, Independent Presidential candidate for the Republic of Tunisia, will discuss this topic. During the 2011 revolution, Zenaidi was the only member of the government to support the young demonstrators in Kasserine with his presence, including attending the funeral of civilians killed in the city of Ezzouhour, and had the police in the region replaced by the national army to restore the peace. While serving in the Tunisian government, he chaired a committee at the World Trade Organization. He supports broad trade reform to enable Tunisia to adhere to WTO principles and exploit its comparative advantages. He advocates for reduced state involvement in the economy to revitalize Tunisia and reduce disparities in regional development. Zenaidi is also a vocal advocate for a closer U.S.-Tunisian partnership, especially to counter violent extremism and terrorism.
  6. Ensuring a Strong U.S. Defense for the Future: Findings of the National Defense Panel | Wednesday, October 22nd | 10:00 – 11:30 | Bipartisan Policy Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | In recent months, the U.S. military has been dispatched to the Middle East to fight ISIS, to Africa to combat Ebola and to Eastern Europe to deter Russia. Yet, automatic reductions to the defense budget, known as “sequestration,” remain the law of the land. Highlighting this tension between national security and fiscal restraint, Michèle Flournoy and Eric Edelman, members of the bipartisan, congressionally-mandated National Defense Panel, warned in a recent op-ed, “without budgetary relief, the U.S. armed forces soon will be at high risk of not being able to accomplish the national defense strategy.”
  7. Kobani: A Challenge to the Peace Process? | Wednesday, October 22nd | 2:00 | Georgetown University |REGISTER TO ATTEND | There will be opening remarks by Dr. Sinan Ciddi, Executive Director, Institute of Turkish Studies and the event will be moderated by Dr. Gonul Tol, Executive Director, Center for Turkish Studies, Middle East Institute. The panelists include Aliza Marcus, Journalist and the author of Blood and Belief, Dr. Kadir Ustun, SETA Foundation, Washington, D.C.  and Mehmet Yuksel, Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), Washington, DC Representative.
  8. Ukraine Elections: An End to the Crisis? | Wednesday, October 22nd | 2:00 | Center on Global Interests | The past 12 months have seen unpredicted and unprecedented disruption in Ukrainian politics. As the deadly conflict in the country’s east continues and economic indicators plummet, the outcome of Ukraine’s upcoming parliamentary elections will be a crucial factor in determining the future course of the country. Will the Petro Poroshenko Bloc’s “party of peace,” expected to win control of the parliament, be able to overcome the crisis facing Ukraine? In anticipation of the Oct. 26 elections, CGI will host a panel discussion exploring the recent changes in Ukraine’s domestic politics, the effects of the election on Ukrainian unity, and the implications for U.S.-Ukraine and Russia-Ukraine relations. The speakers are William Green Miller, former United States Ambassador to Ukraine (1993- 1998), Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Peter Voitsekhovsky, Research Director at the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation; former journalist for BBC, Radio Liberty, and the Voice of America and Katie Fox, Deputy Director of the Eurasia department at NDI, overseeing NDI election monitoring, civic organizing and political party development programs in the former Soviet Union, with a focus on Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Moldova. Ms. Fox was stationed in NDI’s Ukraine office in 1995-1998, and again in 1999 and 2004. The event will be moderated by Konstantin Avramov, Program Director at Center on Global Interests.
  9. Reflections on Islamism: From the Muslim Brotherhood to the Islamic State | Thursday, October 23rd | 12:30 – 2:00 | Washington Institute for Near East Policy | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Once again, Islamism has taken center stage in the Middle East. A generation ago, the pivotal events were the takeover of the Mecca mosque and the Islamic Revolution in Iran; a half-generation ago, the pivotal events were the horrific attacks of September 11. With the counterrevolution against the world’s oldest Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the sudden and bloody emergence of its newest, the “caliphate” called the Islamic State, the complex face of Islamism is again capturing the attention of governments, journalists, analysts, and popular imagination. To inform our understanding of the changing face of Islamism and provide a scholarly context for the decisions policymakers need to make. The speaker is Shimon Shamir, the dean of Middle East scholars in Israel, is professor emeritus of Middle East history at Tel Aviv University. In addition, he had the unique experience of serving as Israel’s ambassador to both Arab states with which it is at peace, Egypt and Jordan.

The peace process is dead, for now

The Israeli Conflict: Has the US Failed? The panel assembled Wednesday at the Middle East Council’s Capitol Hill Conference leaned towards answering in the affirmative. Omar Kader, MEPC chairman, moderated a panel comprising former Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, Foundation for Middle East Peace President Matthew Duss, Brookings Fellow Natan Sachs, and Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director of the Jerusalem Fund and The Palestine Center. Thomas Mattair, MEPC Executive Director was the discussant in a conversation addressing the US role – past and future – in the Middle East peace process.

Munayyer argued that the US has abjectly failed to resolve the conflict. If peace was the US objective in Gaza this summer, then it has failed. But Munayyer suggests that if US primary objectives were to preserve the free-flow of resources in the region while continuing to secure the survival of Israel, then US policy has in fact succeeded. He suggested that peace between Israel and Palestine is not a priority for the US government.

This position was too far for much of the rest of the panel. Daniel Kurtzer countered that regardless of whether US policy has been carried out intelligently or successfully, the peace process is of great importance to the national interest. Duss noted that there are great costs to US interests as the conflict runs on and on. Citizens of other nations – particularly those in the Middle East – have their opinions of the US and its policies shaped through this emotive issue. The conflict can make it much harder for leaders with sizable populations sympathizing with Palestine to work productively with US officials. Ongoing injustices – whether perceived or real – foment mistrust towards the US because of its support for the Israeli government and its inability to deliver on calls for peace. Groups like al-Qaeda draw recruits to fight against the US by playing on anger felt at its perceived role in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Beyond the obvious humanitarian and ethical reasons for peace, it is also of utmost importance to US policy.

So has the US failed? So far, it seems clear it has. Much of the onus for building peace is on the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, but there was also a feeling that success – and failure – is greatly influenced by US policy.

The US has failed the peace process, in Munayyer’s view, by allowing Israel to preserve its status quo, continuing to build settlements in the territories and reneging on its promises. The US has failed to use its leverage over Israel to comply with international law – instead using its leverage internationally to allow Israel to never have to acquiesce to the law. US attempts to discourage Palestine from using the preexisting international framework to address grievances has left the only option for resolution through the US – which he termed “Israel’s lawyer.” The US bias towards Israel makes it hard for Palestinians to gain anything from the peace process: for successful negotiations, both sides must gain more politically than they stand to lose.

Sachs and Duss agreed with this assessment. For the process to succeed, both actors must take difficult steps in order to move towards a lasting accord. Duss sees the US as having the power to help Israel take those difficult steps towards building a lasting peace. To do this US support must be absolute – but while providing support, the resolve to ensure those difficult steps are actually carried through must also be there. The presence of US support without the will to enforce policies that will lead to peace has led to a belief in some quarters in Israel that the current status quo is sustainable. But that will not lead to a lasting peace.

Kurtzer stressed that defining the goals and parameters of negotiations will be key. He feels recent US administrations have failed to decide on a strategy before initiating negotiations. There has also been a degree of naïvety. For example, he acknowledges ongoing settlements are a problem but points out that simply demanding that the Israeli Prime Minister freeze them will not work. If Netanyahu acquiesces, he will pay a political price in the Knesset. To achieve results on this demand – and others – the political payoff must offset the price to the leaders. Indeed – a sustainable process must include gains for both sides that outweigh the challenges they face.

The US tendency to settle for short-term fixes was also criticized. The last decade is littered with ceasefire agreements, but Kurtzer questions whether any further progress is made once the ceasefires are implemented. If only the proximate causes of violence are fixed, and not the root causes, then we will be fated to see further violence in the future. A commitment to more than just rebuilding must be made in the wake of the cessation of violence.

Equally important to Kurtzer is the importance of holding the parties accountable to their agreements and promises. If there are no consequences for bad behavior during negotiations, then violations will occur. Important as keeping both sides at the table is the legitimacy of the peace process, which is severely harmed by duplicity.

There have undoubtedly been failings in the US attempts to bring peace to Israel and Palestine, even if less egregious than the failures of the Palestinian and Israeli governments. But Sachs believes that now is not moment to consider who is at fault in the Gaza and beyond. As anger on both sides grows and the prevailing view in political circles in Israel moves further towards accepting the current status quo, now is the time to learn from previous failings, and to try again – before mistrust and hatred make any resolution impossible.

Here is the video of the event:

Not a hopeless mess

I spent a week yesterday talking with well-informed, Syria opposition-sympathizing people in Istanbul. I heard some interesting things.

While the reelection of Ahmad Tomeh as prime minister of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) has been bumpy due to a boycott by some members of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), it is a done deal. The issue now is who the ministers will be. Their number will shrink to eight or nine. They are supposed to be capable technocrats but will come through a committee of the SOC, which will shift its role to that of a legislative body with oversight responsibilities, instituted through new bylaws. So the ministers will have to pass political muster, and be politically balanced, even if they are supposed to be technocrats. Executive functions will reside with the SIG, whose staff has been getting a lot of training over the past year. Its capacity to govern is improving.

The SIG’s priorities at the moment are clear. Number 1 is food security. Syria faces a massive grain shortfall this winter, due to a dramatic drop in production (by 75% since the year before the war) and a cut in funding to the World Food Programme. Opposition areas need close to 250,000 (presumably) metric tons. Less than this will risk starvation, which would not only be a humanitarian disaster. It means people will flee opposition areas. The war can be lost in many ways, including by losing the population to regime- and Islamic State (ISIS)-controlled areas and to Syria’s neighbors.

Number 2 priority is getting the SIG back into Syria. Already three-quarters of its personnel are said to be there, but the leadership is still in Istanbul and Gaziantep, on the Turkish/Syrian border. It won’t do any good to get them back in unless they, and the people who work for them and benefit from the SIG’s limited services, are reasonably safe.

Here things get complicated. The SIG and SOC want a safe area inside Syria, presumably along the border with Turkey but possibly also in the south. This would require the Americans to lead a coalition effort committed to enforcing it, by pledging to attack anyone or anything that bombarded the safe zone. A no-fly zone is really not sufficient, since a safe area along the Turkish border would also be vulnerable to artillery bombardment. It was a Serb mortar attack on the Sarajevo safe area that precipitated the air attacks on Serb military installations and led to the end of the Bosnian war in 1995. The no-fly zone had not been violated.

The Americans know that the significance of safe areas resides mostly in their failure. An attack on a designated safe area initiates broader military action. They don’t want to start down that slippery slope in Syria. But the SIG and the Turks want the safe area, the former so they can start governing within Syria and establishing their credentials as a serious institution and the latter to slow the massive influxes of refugees (Turkey is now hosting more than 1.5 million).

There is a deal to be had here, because the Americans want the Turks to take up the cudgels against ISIS, in addition to supporting the rebellion against Syrian President Assad. Ankara hasn’t wanted to do as much as it might to support the fight against ISIS, mainly because the people fighting ISIS at the moment along the border with Turkey are Kurds allied with Assad who have also supported a rebellion inside Turkey.

So let’s make a deal: the Turks and the SIG/SOC get their American-protected safe zone, but only if they agree with the Americans to help the Kurds they don’t like to push ISIS away from the border.

In this scenario, Washington would have to twist the Kurds’ arm hard to get them to disassociate from the Assad regime and join the anti-Assad coalition, also pledging not to support insurgency inside Turkey. Otherwise the Turks could find themselves moving into Syria and having to fight both ISIS and the Kurds, which would make a real hash of things.

Washington is still refusing, claiming that it has no ally on the ground in Syria to fight Assad, so it has to limit itself to attacks on ISIS. This is specious. There is even less of an ally on the ground to fight ISIS. Washington is apparently planning to fight a war of attrition against ISIS exclusively from the air, while training a new Syrian opposition force from scratch over the next couple of years. That is not a formula for a quick end to this agony. And I wonder how ISIS, the Kurds and the Free Syrian Army are going to greet the newcomers if and when they finally arrive?

There is some good news. Small but important water, agriculture and energy projects are beginning to take root in opposition-controlled parts of Syria. The multi-donor Syria Recovery Trust Fund is beginning to move money to infrastructure projects that will bring electricity, water, health care and food to liberated areas. Its short life hasn’t been easy, but it is up and running faster than previous trust funds, which have had the benefit of World Bank and EU expertise and have not faced the same conflict conditions or the same political uncertainties in the host country.

Syria is a mess. But it is not a hopeless mess. Defeating both ISIS and Assad will however require a good deal more cooperative commitment from the Americans, the Turks and the Syrian opposition.

Inane but serious

Tuesday saw a soccer brawl between the Serbian and Albanian teams, precipitated by a drone carrying a flag described as portraying “Greater Albania.” Last weekend, vandals scrawled graffiti on the walls and a gate of the Serb Orthodox monastery at Decani, as well as elsewhere in Kosovo later in the week.

These are silly but destructive demonstrations of Albanian ethno-nationalism. But they are also serious, because of the reaction they provoke. A visit of Albanian Prime Minister Rama to Belgrade is said to be in doubt due to the soccer incident, perturbing relations that had been relatively smooth. Serbs in Kosovo fear that the graffiti are prelude to much worse.

They are also serious because of the political message they send. There are Albanians who would like to re-open what the 19th century knew as the Albanian question:  will Albanians live in one country, or in several? There are Serbs who would also like to re-open the Serbian question:  will Serbs live in one country or in several?

The Balkan wars of the 1990s and the international community gave unequivocal answers to these questions:  both Albanians and Serbs will live in several countries. Many Serbs today live not only in Serbia, where they are a numerical majority, but also in Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo. Many Albanians live not only in Albania and Kosovo, where they are a numerical majority, but also in Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. The formerly internal borders of Socialist Yugoslavia, and Albania’s international border, were not redrawn to reflect ethnic lines but instead kept where they lay at the time of the fall of the Berlin wall.

Milosevic tried to redraw those borders. He lost that bid at war in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Albanians who imagine they can re-open the border question now are favoring a solution that Milosevic wanted. Moreover, their effort comes at a time when the international community is fighting a war in Iraq and Syria to prevent a redrawing of borders that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) would like to impose. It would also come at a time when the West is trying to prevent Russia from redrawing the borders of Ukraine to accommodate ethnic differences. Albanian ethno-nationalists can expect zero sympathy in the international community and a lot of resistance to their harebrained ideas.

Lots of such ideas survive however. It is up to Albanians who realize how dangerous and destabilizing they are to prevent them from spreading.

Russian President Putin is today enjoying an official visit to Belgrade in the midst of the Ukraine debacle, something that will annoy both Washington and Brussels. Albanians in Albania and Kosovo will do much better to focus on what really counts–qualifying for the EU accession that will one day make their borders invisible–than doing inane things that will alienate their friends in America and the European Union.

Not doing something is also doing something

Tuesday’s Bipartisan Policy Center event – ISIS, the Kurds and Turkey: A Messy Triangle – was a timely discussion of the difficulties facing coalition efforts in Syria, while shedding light on Turkey’s reluctance to become involved in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) raging along its southern border. BPC’s Foreign Policy Director Blaise Misztal moderated the panel of Eric Edelman, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and former Ambassador to Turkey, and Henri Barkey of BPC’s Turkey Initiative.

The problems surrounding provision of Western support to the Kurds in the north of Syria stem from tensions between the Turkish government and Turkish Kurds – particularly supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Though Turkey under Prime Minister Erdogan has developed good ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, Barkey believes that the possibility of a second autonomous Kurdish statelet in Syria on Turkey’s border is too much to bear for the Turks.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the strongest Syrian-Kurdish player in the conflict today. The PYD has close links with the YPG (People’s Protection Units), which are the militia that are so effectively holding off ISIS against the odds in Kobani and earlier this year helped rescue Iraqi Yazidis from the siege on Mount Sinjar. The strength of the PYD in Syria is troubling for Ankara, because in the event of Syria fracturing it could form a new Kurdish state. This would provide further impetus to Kurds within Turkey calling for independence.

The PYD’s links to the PKK help explain Turkish inaction in the ongoing current fighting in Kobani. Last week a former Turkish Deputy Prime Minister went as far as to label the PKK worse than ISIS on Twitter. Although the PKK’s long running guerrilla campaign against the Turks was suspended with a ceasefire in 2013, the subsequent peace process is looking increasingly fragile. Turkey yesterday again bombed the PKK.

Edelman believes Turkey wants to ensure the ongoing negotiations with the Turkish government are the only option the Kurds have for meeting any of their demands. Ankara fears military success in Syria might provide impetus for stronger calls for independence from Kurds inside Turkey. By not aiding the PKK, Turkey hopes to cut the group and its offshoots down to size. But as recent violent riots in response to the government’s inaction have shown, this strategy may well produce unintended consequences.

Perhaps more concerning to the coalition, Turkey is allowing its concerns about the Kurds to permit the spread of the Islamic State. Because Turkey is not intervening or aiding Kurdish fighters in Kobani, ISIS has gained repeated opportunities to take the town. ISIS success would open the border further to foreign jihadist hopefuls, who already use Turkey as a final staging point before entering to join extremist groups.

That porous border – and the networks designed to funnel recruits from Istanbul airport to the Syrian border – are yet more examples of Turkey’s attempts at realpolitik throughout the Syrian civil war. Edelman notes that while Erdogan’s government was initially supportive of Assad, once Damascus turned to bloody repression the Turkish government, embarrassed by its choice of friends, decided to topple the Syrian regime as quickly as possible.

This led to a period of tacit Turkish support for jihadist groups (notably Jabhat al-Nusra) for two reasons. First, the Free Syrian Army, which Turkey trained and supported, proved unable to deliver quick victories. Second, Turkish policy became increasingly oriented towards Sunni majoritarianism. The desire for a quick toppling of Assad led to Turkish aid and arms – at least for a time – for groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.

Neither Edelman nor Barkley believe Turkey’s government has intentionally or directly supported ISIS itself. According to Edelman, the current inaction against ISIS is not just rooted in a wariness of the Kurds, but also a realization that actions against ISIS will have direct consequences for Turkey’s security. The kidnap of 47 Turkish diplomatic personnel after the fall of Mosul exemplifies this reason for caution. The hostages were released last month, but the details of the negotiations are murky. It remains unclear what prisoner exchanges or promises were involved.

Turkey’s priorities are fundamentally different from those laid out by the Obama administration in forming a coalition to degrade and destroy ISIS. Turkey was willing to topple Assad as fast as possible, even at the expense of aiding jihadis. Now with ISIS on the border, Ankara is worried about the possibility of a Kurdish state in Syria. It is more interested in countering the PKK and PYD than in fighting ISIS.

But if Turkey allows ISIS to take Kobani, the result may yet strengthen the Kurdish movement. Barkey compared the siege to Iraqi Kurdistan’s Halabja. The Iraqi town Saddam Hussein gassed has become a potent symbol, complete with folkloric defenders. Both speakers believe Kobani will be a defining moment regardless of the outcome. Turkey is hoping by its inaction to prevent an unfavorable future. But that inaction may be making it more likely that it will eventually have such an unfavorable future forced upon it.

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