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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