Op-Ed:  U.S. strategy on Islamic State and Turkey needs to start with the endgame


Turkish-American relations reached their nadir last week. Turkey’s failure to take a definitive stance on Islamic State has unleashed a torrent of criticism in Western media of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government. Vice President Joe Biden set the tone for Washington’s frustration with his off-the-cuff remarks at Harvard insinuating that Turkey had earlier lent support to Islamic State. Erdogan declared that Biden would be “history to me” unless he apologized. Despite Biden’s apology, pundits have piled on to accuse Turkey of choosing Islamic State militants over the Kurds of Syria, and some even suggest ousting it from NATO.

The inaction of Ankara, Turkey’s capital, on Islamic State holds a mirror to Washington’s own inability to act definitively in the Middle East. Beyond President Obama’s decision to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State through airstrikes backed by a nebulous coalition, Washington has failed to announce any clear endgame strategy. The eradication of Islamic State, should it succeed, will only go so far toward remedying the region’s web of conflict and would inevitably create a power vacuum. The fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, the integrity of an Iraqi state beset by sectarian and ethnic divisions, and the demands of increasingly emboldened Kurdish groups spanning Turkey, Syria and Iraq hang in the balance. Given Turkey’s position on the front lines, these endgame issues matter immensely to Ankara.

Ankara’s concerns about a post-Islamic State world are intricately linked to Turkey’s own Kurdish issue. Any action has potentially devastating consequences for Turks, Kurds and Washington’s fragile coalition against Islamic State. The Kurdish city of Kobani in Syria, near the border with Turkey, has been under siege by Islamic State and has become the symbol of international indifference. The Turks are hesitant to intervene unilaterally to save Kobani because the Kurdish fighters defending it hail from a sister organization of Turkey’s homegrown Kurdish faction, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.


Ankara calls Islamic State and the PKK “terrorist organizations.” Kurdish groups accuse Ankara of taking a passive stance on Kobani as part of a strategy to weaken Kurdish influence, domestically and regionally, thus siding with Islamic State. Washington remains noncommittal and adrift with respect to Syria’s Kurds, refusing to define Kobani as a strategic priority and hamstrung by Turkey’s official position on the issue. And Ankara remains overly confident in its ability to shape regional outcomes.

Turkey’s Kurdish peace process is now trapped between acute regional turmoil and the increasingly nationalist tenor of Turkish domestic politics. Civil unrest, largely underreported in the West, resulting in more than 30 deaths so far, has swept Turkey’s Kurdish provinces as Kurdish groups have protested inaction on Kobani.

The recent violence has also spread to universities, where pro-Kurd students have clashed with alleged Islamic State supporters as well as with state authorities. This week, Turkish authorities attacked PKK positions in its southeast region, which could spell the end to a tenuous cease-fire that was the cornerstone of Turkish-Kurdish reconciliation. If left to fester, such unrest within Turkey could plunge it into full-fledged armed conflict.

In the fight against Islamic State militants, the issue of Assad and the larger question of Kurdish demands can no longer be ignored. A historic opportunity for Turkish-Kurdish
reconciliation is about to be squandered. Rather than the blame game of the past, Washington must use its existing leverage in Ankara to help change course. This means recognizing that Turkey’s domestic problems and passive attitude toward Islamic State are largely a symptom, not the cause, of vast regional challenges stemming from the breakdown of Iraq and Syria.

Washington must help bring Ankara on board by clearly defining an endgame in Syria that includes a defeated Islamic State replaced by a coalition-backed, moderate opposition that can carry on the long-term fight against Assad. The U.S. should initiate this process by reconvening in Turkey the “Friends of Syria,” which initially included all of the regional partners supporting Syrian refugees. The internationally backed, but militarily insufficient, Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish elements defending Kobani belong at the table.

In exchange for Turkey’s participation, Washington can mobilize international aid to support the influx of Syrian refugees to Turkey. The short-term military defeat of Islamic State will require regional cooperation and consensus between the Kurdish boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria.


The U.S. should also consider sending limited special operations forces, which both America and Turkey can jointly operate. For this to be viable, Washington must back Ankara’s Kurdish peace process and PKK cease-fire. That will require redoubled intelligence sharing and economic aid for Turkey’s troubled southeast, and guarantees of long-term U.S. commitment to the wider region. Washington should require that any direct support for the Kurds fighting in Kobani is conditional on the PKK maintaining its cease-fire with Ankara.

Only by leading with an endgame strategy and demonstrating a sense of empathy for the complexities that Ankara faces will it become clear how our NATO partner can best be engaged in mutually beneficial way. A breakdown in Turkish-American relations and reescalation of Turkish-Kurdish rivalries at this critical moment benefit no one.

Kristin Fabbe, an assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is also a research fellow American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. Joshua Walker, a vice president of global programs at an international communications company, is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a former senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion