As Major League Baseball reached its annual deadline for trading players last week, exchanges with much more far-reaching consequences were taking place in the Greater Middle East. On July 23, the United States signed an agreement with Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbour, to use the Turkish air base of Incirlik to launch air strikes against Islamic State (ISIS) forces in Syria. Since then, U.S. and Turkish planes have conducted bombing campaigns against ISIS in northern Syria,seeking to disrupt its base and establish a “safe zone” to prevent future terrorist attack in the area – such as an ISIS attack the previous week in the southern Turkish town of Suruc, which killed 32 people.
This agreement represents a significant shift, as Turkey had previously resisted U.S. requests to take an active military role in the fight against ISIS. Until now, U.S. forces and allies bombing ISIS positions had to fly out of bases in the Persian Gulf region, requiring several hours of limited flight times to be spent getting to and from Syria and Iraq. Gaining access to the air base in Incirlik provides a much closer launching pad, allowing fighter planes to carry out longer and more complex missions against targets.
At the same time, Turkish forces have also begun an intense air campaign against neighbouring Kurdish militias in Iraq, Syria, and the southeastern part of its own country, framing this action as part of the broader fight against terrorism. The Turkish government has been involved in on-again, off-again conflict with the Kurds – whose population spans several countries, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran – since the formation of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 1984 and the beginning of Kurdish nationalist terrorist attacks.
Meanwhile, the Kurds have been among the strongest allies of the United States, Canada, and other countries fighting ISIS in the region; well-organized Kurdish militia forces (called the peshmerga) scored successful military victories against ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria, at a time when the Iraqi army struggled to mount an effective campaign and the Syrian government represented an unpalatable ally in the region. While U.S. officials are publicly urging Turkey to refrain from attacking Kurdish towns, there seems to be little appetite to take any more concrete action to counter this campaign while the United States uses Turkish air bases to launch bombing campaigns. Consequently, the Turkish air campaign against both ISIS and Kurdish regions seems likely to continue, likely shattering any hope of political reconciliation and fostering a Kurdish sense of betrayal towards the West.
- “US-Turkish Deal on Syria Outrages America’s Kurdish Allies“, by Christopher Woolf and Matthew Bell (The World)
- “Erdogan’s New Offensive Puts Turkey on the Edge of a Dangerous Precipice“, by Joanna Slater (The Globe and Mail)
- Turkey’s Focus on Crushing Kurdish Separatists Complicates the Fight Against ISIS“, by Anne Barnard (The New York Times)
The Turkish government wanted a balance: If the Islamic State is going to be dispersed with, then it should not be replaced by the PKK or its extensions in Syria. The Americans didn’t so much approve this strategy, but they just turned a blind eye for the time being… for the time being, they are tolerating it for continuing Turkish cooperation against the Islamic State.” – Mehmet Ali Tugtan, Political Scientist at Istanbul Bilgi University
In many respects, the deal struck between the United States and Turkey last week represents a set of “trades” – in alliances, tactics, and strategic goals – that have been brewing among all parties since the United States began winding down its presence in Iraq in 2011. For Turkey, the trade involved swapping its relatively “hands-off” approach to the Syrian civil war and tentative truce with its Kurdish population for a more active military role and harder line against the Kurds. Meanwhile, the United States traded a solid alliance with the Kurds that had helped further its goals in Iraq, for a stronger alliance with Turkey to help stabilize the situation in northern Syria. The Kurds, in turn, are now facing their own set of potential cards to play in response to the changing environment around them.
As with any type of trade, it’s helpful to examine the forces that influenced the decision-making of each actor, and that will continue to shape events and relationships over the near- and mid-term:
Turkey: Out of all the parties, the Turkish government likely had the most near-term reasons to make a trade in tactics and strategy. As discussed in a previous blog post, national elections in June delivered a surprisingly weak result for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Rather than winning the overwhelming majority he expected, Erdogan’s party received less than half of the seats in Parliament, forcing him to seek a coalition partner. One of the reasons for the AKP’s poor showing was the surprising success of a new coalition between left-wing Turks and nationalist Kurds. Erdogan’s most natural partner is the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which would likely demand a harder line against Kurdish nationalists. (As of this past weekend, it seems that the MHP is backing out of coalition talks with the AKP, despite the latter’s continued pursuit.) The launch of an air campaign against groups suspected of aiding Kurdish separatists could therefore be interpreted as a signal of the AKP’s courting of the MHP for political support.
On a societal scale, the ever-increasing presence of Syrian refugees in Turkey is likely playing a role in its decision-making as well. While the European Union is debating a plan to resettle 40,000 refugees in response to the migrant crisis of the past two years, Turkey now has an estimated population of 2 million refugees, mostly coming from Syria. Though it is receiving some help from outside agencies such as the United Nations, the strain of caring for such a high number likely increases pressure on the government to become more active in trying to bring an end to the Syrian civil war.
United States: The United States’ decisions are informed by a changing set of strategic goals over the medium- and long-term. In the previous decade, the United States carefully cultivated alliances in the Middle East that it believed would be necessary to bring order and democracy to the region – including a central Iraqi government it attempted to forge, and, subsequently, the relatively well-organized Kurds. Yet, the Obama Administration’s desire to “pivot” the focus of American foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific region requires the United States to start winding down its military and financial commitments in the Middle East. In turn, this transition likely means that America will be more fluid in its alliances; rather than steadfastly supporting groups such as the Kurds at all costs, it makes more sense for the United States to remain flexible in seeking partners who can help keep regional problems from escalating as it draws down. At the same time, the desire to preserve the recently-concluded agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, while not forging a full alliance between the two countries, may convince the Obama Administration to give Iran more space to influence events in Iraq, thereby reducing America’s reliance on Iraqi Kurdish forces. The United States likely believes that a stronger alliance with Turkey gives it a better chance of containing the threat of ISIS expansion, even if it means harming its relationship with the Kurds for the time being.
The Kurds: The Kurds have the most to lose in these shifting alliances – not only have they seemingly lost a powerful ally in the United States, the dream among some Kurdish groups of an independent country may also be deferred. Their response could portend an emerging trend among several groups in the Middle East. Without the steady protection of a superpower like the United States, the Kurds may turn to other regional powers, and adopt more risky behaviour, to ensure their security. A growing alliance to watch is one between the Kurds and nuclear-armed Israel, which also has frosty relations with Turkey, wishes to see ISIS dismantled, and has faced cooler relations with the United States in recent months. In an extreme situation, Israel could even use Kurdish territory to launch air strikes against Iran to thwart what it perceives as an unacceptable risk of an Iranian nuclear bomb. The fallout from such a move could provoke further cascading shifts and fault lines among groups jostling for power.
While this week’s news focused on Turkey and the Kurds, similar types of trades and shifting alliances are occurring all over the Middle East, from Iraq to Yemen to Israel/Palestine. After a generation of becoming further and further enmeshed in the region’s problems, the United States’ gradual withdrawal from the region may cause just as much, if not more, instability as regional actors struggle to find a new balance of power.