The Turks, The Kurds, and U.S. Alliances in the Age of ISIS

When U.S. President-elect Donald Trump asserts that the United States and Russia should, based on their shared interests, form a strategic partnership to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or, ISIS), he is implicitly invoking a timeworn proverb: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

The practicability of such a partnership with Russia notwithstanding, the political salience of Trump’s crude logic points to the ways in which the fight against ISIS has simplified traditional balance-of-power geostrategic thinking when it comes to the Middle East. With all threats subservient to that of ISIS, the tangled web of overlapping interests in the region has crystallized into a Manichaean dichotomy of good and evil. Through this lens, potential partners for the United States are measured by a single yardstick: their willingness to, and efficiency at, fighting ISIS. So what happens when ISIL is gone?

“If the United States wants to translate all its hard work in defeating ISIS into long-term strategic gains, it needs to look beyond the present battle and start setting the conditions for a post-ISIS Middle East favorable to U.S. interests. Above all else, that means setting its priorities straight with respect to the Turks and the Kurds.”

While the challenges posed by ISIS will not disappear once the dust settles in Mosul and Raqqa, the potential removal of ISIS from its last territorial strongholds will nonetheless have significant ramifications. The territorial defeat of ISIS, should it come, will engender new tensions, straining the ties between allies and antagonists alike.

If the United States wants to translate all its hard work in defeating ISIS into long-term strategic gains, it needs to look beyond the present battle and start setting the conditions for a post-ISIS Middle East favorable to U.S. interests. Above all else, that means setting its priorities straight with respect to the Turks and the Kurds.

Let’s start with Turkey, a country where the veneer of democracy disguises the machinery of illiberalism. Since coming to power in 2002, President Recep Erdogan has made several illiberal gestures, which include placing the military under more stringent civilian control, routinely arresting dissident journalists, and successfully pushing to replace Turkey’s longstanding parliamentary system with an executive presidency built around himself and without sufficient checks and balances. (The military has staged four coups in modern Turkey; however, it has historically acted as a check against excessively Islamic rule, facilitating a quick transfer of power and a return to democratic norms in each of the four cases.) Seduced by the sheen of modern Turkey’s secular, democratic traditions in an otherwise turbulent Near East, the West has largely been blind to these sinister developments.

But any doubts about Erdogan’s authoritarian intentions should have been dispelled in the aftermath of the failed July coup, when Erdogan undertook a purge of astounding proportions. Since the coup, he has arrested 8,000 soldiers and 7,000 civilians; suspended 3,000 teachers; revoked the licenses of 21,000 teachers; fired 8,000 policemen and more than 1,500 university deans; and even arrested 60 children on charges of treason. That Erdogan had a list of dissidents prepared before the coup; that the coup was so poorly orchestrated; and that Erdogan deemed the attacks a “gift from God” have fueled speculation that Erdogan knowingly acquiesced to the coup to create a pretext for an authoritarian crackdown. With the post-coup recriminations, Erdogan’s Turkey now imprisons more journalists per capita than either Iran or China.

Erdogan’s domestic transgressions might be less worrisome if it weren’t for Turkey’s sudden rapprochement with Russia and its simultaneous slide away from the West. After a nine-month squabble that began last November over the downing of a Russian Su-24 fighter operating in Turkish airspace, Erdogan, feeling the pressure of Russia’s retaliatory sanctions, apologized for the incident and restored economic ties with Russia. Then, after the July coup, Erdogan paid his first foreign visit to the Kremlin while giving voice to highly speculative allegations that the United States was behind the coup.

In all likelihood, the realignment will not be a passing phenomenon. Economically, the two countries are close to finalizing a deal on a nuclear power plant and the TurkStream natural gas pipeline—a project Putin hopes will keep Europe dependent on Russian natural gas imports. Politically, Erdogan’s illiberalism will cause growing friction with his Western allies, who will find it difficult not to speak out against his criminal abuses. Putin, of course, will not share that sentiment.

In contradistinction to Turkey’s domestic illiberalism and its fickle foreign policy stand the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. Both these groups have proven to be reliable partners in the coalition campaign against ISIS and have shown themselves to be sufficiently competent, if not adept, at democratic self-rule. While they do not identify as a single identity-group, collectively the Kurds also happen to be the largest stateless minority in the world.

Herein lies the paradox: While the Kurds will likely demand some form of statehood in any post-conflict political settlement, the Turks, fearing this would trigger a domestic insurgency among their own Kurdish population, will probably find that arrangement unacceptable. U.S. leadership, therefore, will be decisive.

Declaring a commitment to Kurdish statehood would invariably alienate Erdogan, but it would be foolhardy to put our faith in an unreliable and authoritarian regime in Turkey that has already signaled an Eastern pivot—especially when the price of doing so will be the abandonment of the Kurds.

The trick, of course, is to balance these relationships until ISIS has been defeated in Mosul and Raqqa. But without a course correction recognizing the imperative of sustained strategic partnership with the Kurds, the United States will likely walk away from the campaign against ISIS with little to show for it except waning influence in a Russia- and Iran-centric Middle East.

Image: Taksim protesters carrying the Turkish flag on June 5, 2013. (Mstyslav Chernov, Creative Commons)

John Sakellariadis is a research intern at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on transatlantic security. He is a recent graduate of Harvard College, where he majored in American history and literature. He has experience in both the public and private sector, and is particularly interested in U.S. foreign and defense policy. 

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