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U.S. and Turkey’s Problems Run Deeper than a Failure to Communicate

Washington and Ankara are having trouble coming to an understanding; they can’t even agree on what they agree. On October 13, National Security Advisor Susan Rice announced that Turkey would allow the United States to use the Incirlik air base in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), only to have the deal denied by the Turkish foreign minister. This communications failure is not only the result of crossed diplomatic cables, but also is symptomatic of a much graver problem that has been festering for too long: the United States and Turkey, although treaty allies, no longer share the same interests.

Turkey has nominally joined, albeit begrudgingly and after much reluctance, the U.S.-led coalition confronting IS in Iraq and Syria. Yet, it has shown little interest in taking on the terrorists rampaging just miles from its border. Instead, Ankara is attempting to leverage Washington’s obvious desire for Turkish involvement to shift the focus of the campaign toward Turkey’s primary interests: suppressing the Kurds and ousting Assad. To achieve this, Turkey is holding not only Incirlik hostage but also the town of Kobani currently under siege by IS. U.S. policymakers ought to remain wary of buying Turkish cooperation at such a high price.

When IS captured the Iraqi city of Mosul, Turkey was careful not to mention the group by name, let alone take them on. Ankara’s reasoning was understandable: in capturing Mosul, IS had taken hostage over 40 Turkish citizens. But the reasons for Turkey’s reticence always went deeper than the hostages.

After Turkey secured the release of these hostages last month, many expected that it would move more aggressively to confront IS. “They first needed to deal with their hostage situation,” Secretary of State John Kerry said, adding, “[n]ow, the proof will be in the pudding.” But even after the hostage release, Turkey was disinclined to change its position. “No one can give a test to Turkey,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu chastised Kerry, “as if it was not doing what is necessary.”

Instead, Turkish leaders have pointed to numerous other reasons why Ankara prefers not to get involved.

Turkey insists that the real problem in the region is not IS, but the Assad regime in Damascus. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, has long advocated U.S. intervention in Syria; he blames the emergence of extremist groups on the West for allowing the conflict to go on too long.

Further, Ankara is worried about arming the Kurds. Turkey worries that an internationally-armed PKK might be reignite the insurgency at home and that an autonomous Kurdish entity might emerge in Syria.

Turkey has realized, however, that it could get the United States to address these issues by making them a condition of its cooperation in the fight against IS.

The resolution authorizing use of force adopted by Turkey’s Parliament makes those interests clear. The resolution enables the government to “defeat attacks directed at our country from all terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria,” but the only terrorist group explicitly mentioned is the PKK, not IS. And just days after the resolution’s passage, President Erdoğan explained that, “[f]or us, the PKK is the same as ISIL. It is wrong to consider them as different from each other.”

The PKK’s more seasoned fighters are assisting Iraqi and Syrian Kurds in their fight against IS. As such, Western countries are beginning to see the PKK as an asset and potential ally rather than a terrorist organization.

To prevent this outcome, Turkey seems determined to leave Kurdish forces to battle IS alone in the Syrian town of Kobani. Turkey had stopped Syrian Kurds from seeking refuge in Turkey and is preventing PKK fighters from joining the fight in Syria. Now, Turkey is refusing to help defend Kobani, sending its air force to bomb the PKK instead, unless the U.S.-led coalition agrees to make ousting Assad one of its goals.

Turkey’s motivations and objectives diverge dangerously from those of the United States. American leaders must consider whether this makes Turkey’s contribution a liability, rather than an asset, to its objectives in the Middle East.

Svante Cornell is director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Turkey Initiative, which Blaise Misztal directs.

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