Shadow Government

Turkey’s Two-Faced Deal

The new agreement between Ankara and Washington is just a smokescreen for the latest campaign against the Kurds.


On its face, the Turkish-American agreement permitting anti-Islamic State forces to operate from the Turkish base in Incirlik is a welcome development. Until now, American fighters have been forced to take off from Bahrain, thereby limiting the number of sorties that could be carried out against the Islamist State on a given day. Operations from Incirlik should therefore enable Washington to intensify its air campaign against the extremists. But there is a catch, and that catch comes in the person of Turkish President Recip Tayyep Erdogan.

Erdogan has three primary objectives, none of which involves defeating the Islamic State. The first is to crush the PKK, the Kurdish rebel group that Washington, among others, has labeled a terrorist organization. To that end, Erdogan has ordered new air strikes against the Kurdish group in Iraq, and would like to weaken the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia that maintains close ties to the PKK.

Erdogan’s second objective is to dislodge Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom he initially courted, but whom the Turkish president believes lied to him on numerous occasions about implementing political reform in Syria when the civil war was in its earliest stages. The thin-skinned Erdogan, who was then prime minister, turned on the Syrian President and has been determined to destroy him ever since.

But Erdogan’s third, and most important objective, is to undermine the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), whose success in garnering 10 percent of the vote in Turkey’s recent parliamentary elections, blocked Erdogan’s AK Party from securing a majority in parliament and, as a result, frustrated Erdogan’s ambition to create a Turkish version of France’s Gaullist-inspired all-powerful presidency. Erdogan is anticipating that the current inter-party negotiations to create a coalition with a working parliamentary majority will fail, and that in a new round of elections that would then have to be held, the HDP would be discredited because of its links to the PKK, and would fail to meet the 10 percent threshold it must obtain to remain in parliament. The AK party would likely then return to power, and Erdogan could resume his quest for an all-powerful presidency.

Where, then, does Washington fit into all of the foregoing? In a word, it doesn’t. The Obama administration’s highest priority is to defeat the Islamic State. In that regard, its goals are the same as those of YPG, which has benefitted from American air support in its successful operations against the Islamic State in Syria’s northeast and northwest, including the strategic town of Kobani. Regime change in Syria, which once seemed to be an American priority, no longer is mentioned by administration spokesmen. The informal understanding between Washington and Damascus, whereby American forces will avoid attacking those of Assad, remains in place. Indeed, that understanding may well have been strengthened as a result of the recently signed “Joint Plan of Action” between the so-called P5+1 and Iran, Assad’s closest ally and strongest supporter.

It has been reported that an additional result of the Turkish-American agreement is the prospect of that safe zone for Turkish refugees will finally be created along the Turkish-Syrian border. Here too, however, Washington and Ankara may be operating at cross purposes. Turkey has long pressed for the creation of such a zone, to enable it to reverse the flow of Syrian refugees that have flooded its territory. Washington has been far more reluctant to create and support such a zone, and the administration continues to deny that plans are in place for one. Instead it wants to clear the Islamic State out of an area in which Syrian moderate forces could operate freely.

Meanwhile, however, the administration’s efforts to train the Syrian “moderate” opposition are nothing short of risible. Thus far, only 60 fighters, or less than half a U.S. Army company-sized unit, have graduated from America’s $500 million training program. If Washington stops supporting the YPG, as Erdogan hopes it will, the odds that the Islamic State can be pushed back in Syria will diminish even more, leaving the extremist group to fight Assad, which is exactly what Erdogan wants to see happen.

Four years into the Syrian civil war, the administration has yet to come up with a meaningful Syria strategy. Its deal with Turkey appears to have enabled Erdogan to renew his war with the PKK, terminate his peace talks with the Kurds, and thereby create the conditions for more instability inside Turkey, especially if the HDP fails to obtain any seats in parliament if, as expected, there is a new round of elections. Its attempt to sustain a moderate opposition force remains pitiful. Its efforts to dislodge Assad have long since been abandoned. And should it back away from its current level of support for the YPG, it will actually have increased the likelihood that the Islamic State will remain entrenched in Syria for a long time to come. What all of the foregoing sadly indicates is that the administration’s Syria policy can best be described in just two words: “blundering incoherence.”

Gokhan Tan/Getty Images

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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