The United States picked the wrong ally to fight ISIS

Friday 14/08/2015
Pro-peace rally in Istanbul

When Turkey finally agreed to actively join US-led efforts to fight the Islamic State (ISIS), Ankara was supposed to make the battle against the extremist group more effective. Yet within days, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan bombed not just ISIS forces but also, with even greater fervour, the one group showing some success in keeping them at bay: the Kurds.
The United States miscalculated by bringing in Erdogan.
Turkey’s embattled and volatile leader looks far less interested in combating ISIS than in reclaiming his power at home. Erdogan’s personal agenda, however, cannot be allowed to alienate US partners and prolong the conflict.
Washington’s first priority here should be to preserve its constructive alliances with Kurdish groups in the fight against ISIS. It must also prevent Turkey from further undermining the key strategic goal of defeating the jihadists.
US officials should be taking a far stronger stance against Erdogan’s attacks on the Kurds. One complicating factor is that both Ankara and Washington have labelled the target of Turkish operations — the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — a terrorist organisation. But there are related Kurdish organisations that US leaders can and should approach, publicly reassure and privately work with to maintain their cooperation against ISIS.
First, the Syrian Kurdish political movement, the Democratic Union Party, though ideologically related to the PKK, is considered a separate organisation and not designated a terrorist group under US law.
Its leader, Saleh Muslim, should be invited to Washington expeditiously for high-level consultations with government officials. These meetings could publicly demonstrate Washington’s continued commitment to the Syrian Kurds.
Second, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, is increasingly popular because it represents the aspirations of the vast majority of Turkey’s Kurds to reach a peaceful solution to the long civil conflict, as well as many Turks who want a more democratic, liberal Turkey.
The party’s success in the June general elections was tremendous; it won seats in parliament for the first time. Yet the government has recently opened an investigation into the party’s joint leader, Selahattin Demirtas, that many critics say is politically motivated. The US ambassador to Turkey should meet Demirtas and express Washington’s continued support for concluding a peace process between Turkey and the PKK.
Third, the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq remains the most important of all the Kurdish factions. It might also be least likely to abandon the anti-Islamic State coalition over Turkish actions because of its close economic ties to Ankara and ideological opposition to the PKK. But if the regional government were to abandon the coalition, US forces could lose access to critical operational, planning and intelligence facilities. So US officials would do well to reassure Kurdish leaders of Washington’s commitment to their safety.
Another priority for US officials should be to remove Erdogan’s motivation for attacking the PKK: political survival.
In June, Turkish voters handed Erdogan a significant defeat.
His Justice and Development Party, after 12 years of single-party rule, failed to secure even a simple majority in parliament. Ever since, Erdogan has been searching for an excuse to call early elections and cajole the voters who deserted him to return to the fold. War offered the perfect opportunity.
By denying Erdogan’s campaign any imprimatur of international legitimacy, the United States could begin to cut down on the political benefit he is seeking to accrue. This could mean US officials openly questioning Turkey’s attack on the PKK and highlighting how it jeopardises the mission against ISIS.
It might have been a miscalculation to bring Erdogan into this conflict. But if the United States could stick by its Kurdish partners and chastise Erdogan’s recklessness, he might realise that he is the one who has finally overplayed his hand.