Differing US and Turkish agendas over ISIS

Friday 11/09/2015

Since 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein on the discred­ited premise of Tehran possessing weapons of mass destruction, the policies of NATO allies Turkey and the United States have diverged. Then the government of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declined to participate in the operation or allow the United States to use its Incirlik airbase, complicating Washington’s efforts to force regime change on Iraq.

Since the summer of 2014 the Islamic State (ISIS) has captured large regions of Syria and Iraq. The group’s sudden rise, resultant chaos in Iraq and ISIS’s subse­quent movement into Syria presented Washington and Ankara with another political problem where policies diverge, with the Obama administration frustrated by Erdogan’s reluctance to seal the border against the flow of jihadis into the war zone. After nearly ten months of negotiations, Turkey and the United States have agreed to joint operations against ISIS.

Will it prove too little, too late?

The rise of ISIS is the result of not only misguided US Middle East policy after 2003 but also stems from action taken by the Turkish government 91 years ago, when Kamal Ataturk abolished the caliphate. ISIS claims to have re-established it under Caliph Ibrahim. Binding Turkish and US regional foreign policy is a common desire to overthrow embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, but beyond that US and Turkish aims diverge. Erdogan, now president, mixed in an additional element — operations against Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq. The muddled outcome of this broadened agenda remains to be seen but the portents are ominous.

Five elements have been battling ISIS — the Syrian Army, Syrian opposition militias, the less effective Iraqi Army, the Iraqi Shia militia and the Kurds. Erdogan has little love for the latter two groups and this has undoubtedly col­oured his attitude about the Turkish-Syrian border where a de facto truce had been in place with ISIS refraining from mounting operations against Turkey itself. Washington has complained about this laissez-faire policy and it was only recently that the Erdogan administration took steps to close the frontier, which has been the primary conduit for the estimated 20,000 foreign jihadis now fighting in the ranks of ISIS.

Erdogan’s determination to use the crisis to settle old scores with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is a reversal of his adminis­tration’s earlier conciliatory outreach towards Kurds. In 2013 it signed a ceasefire with the PKK. Erdogan’s new strategy conflicts with US policy, which has been sending assistance to Kurdistan Regional Government head Masoud Barzani.

Another factor intensifying Erdogan’s ire towards the Kurds was the unexpected electoral success of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), when in June elections it unex­pectedly won 13.1% of the vote and enought parliamentary seats to end Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) 13 years of one-party rule. By preventing Erdogan’s electoral victory, the HDP denied the AKP the majority it needed to govern. Erdogan subsequently effectively ended his government’s ceasefire with the PKK and Turkey launched air strikes against Kurdish targets on July 24th.

On August 5th, US warplanes began strikes on ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq from Incirlik. US aircraft are also using Turkish air bases in Batman, Diyarbakir and Malatya. Sorties from Incirlik to Syria take 15 minutes, compared with three hours from the Persian Gulf. Only on August 28th did the first Turkish Air Force jets from Incirlik strike ISIS targets in Syria.

In the wake of differing agendas in Washington and Ankara, will air strikes alone prove successful in blunting ISIS and its theology? If history is a guide, the future is indeed uncertain. When divergent agendas between Washington and Ankara are mixed in, the question is whether the new US-Turkish alliance can outlast the caliphate’s apparent seductive appeal to many Muslims.