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US, Turkey at Odds Over Strategy Against Islamic State

  • Mike Richman

Turkey is part of the U.S.-led international coalition that is confronting the Islamic State militant group in Syria and Iraq, but Ankara has refused to participate militarily.

A major reason for Turkey's reluctance is that its regional priorities differ from those of the U.S. Analysts say Washington's priority is Iraq, while Turkey's main goal is the downfall of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

Nowhere is Turkey’s hesitancy to join the coalition more glaring than in the Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobani, where Kurdish fighters have been battling an Islamic State onslaught.

Kurds in Turkey have pleaded with Ankara to intervene militarily to prevent the militants from capturing the city on the Syrian-Turkish border, staging protests that turned violent. Analysts say Turkey has not tried to stop the Islamic State because of alleged ties between Kobani's Syrian-Kurdish defenders and Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.

Henri Barkey of the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center is convinced that Turkey would rather see Kobani fall. During a panel discussion, he said the emergence of an independent Kurdish region in northern Syria could push the PKK to ask for a similar power-sharing deal.

“So for the Turks, strategically, especially at a time when they are in negotiations with the PKK over some kind of solution to the Turkish-Kurdish problem, the emergence of another autonomous region in northern Syria is too much to bear strategically," Barkey said. “It’s not that they support ISIS. But in some ways for them another 200,000 refugees is an acceptable price to pay in the midterm against a strategic success for the [Kurds] in northern Syria.“

Barkey and fellow panelist Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Ankara and a former undersecretary of defense, agreed it is in Turkey’s best interest to work with the United States on combating the Islamic State.

“Obviously, both the United States and Turkey need each other," said Edelman. "That, I think, goes without saying.”

U.S.-Turkish Disconnect

The disconnect in U.S.-Turkish priorities has contributed to miscommunication between the two countries. Recently, they differed publicly on whether a deal had been reached for the U.S. to use the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey for offensive operations against Islamic State fighters. U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice said on NBC last Sunday that Turkey had agreed to let the U.S. use the base, but Ankara said not so fast.

According to Barkey, Turkey will not benefit in the long term by maintaining its isolation.

"The price may be going up for Turkey and not for us in the sense that -- especially after the national security adviser says we have a deal, the Turks say we don’t have a deal -- that’s not how you make friends in Washington and certainly the White House," he said. "The Turks will find that being on the outside is very uncomfortable.”

Retired U.S. General John Allen, the Obama administration's envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State, is helping coordinate what the partners will contribute to the mission.

Difficult partner

Edelman said Allen will find Turkey to be one of Washington's most difficult coalition partners.

"I think Turkey has been a problematic, difficult NATO ally now for a number of years and on a number of fronts," Edelman said. "I don't think any of that is new and then given the context that [Barkey] and I have been talking about is not altogether surprising."

Allen also will realize the Turks will want commitments from Washington, according to Edelman.

“Turkey does have some concerns that it doesn’t feel are being addressed by the United States," Edelman said. "So it stands to reason they would want to get certain kinds of commitments about what the U.S. is or isn’t willing to do before it determines what it for its part might be willing to do. And allowing, for instance, the United States to use Incirlik to fly strike missions against ISIS could present some problems for Turkey in the sense that it could open them up to retaliation.”

Among the commitments, Turkey wants the U.S. to declare a no-fly zone in northern Syria, near the Turkish border, to create a safe haven for moderate rebels fighting the Syrian government.

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