MENASource|News, Analysis, Perspectives

October 9, 2014
Although the expression "a fine kettle of fish" has been around for hundreds of years to characterize a confused, awkward, messy, and even intractable situation, it was revived in the first half of the 20th century by comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Although there is nothing at all humorous about the ISIS assault on the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab in Arabic) astride the Turkish border, the tangled political relationships of the key actors bring to mind the rebuke sometimes employed by Hardy to describe a mess created by his sidekick. No doubt the White House feels itself playing Hardy to Ankara's Laurel.

Objectively speaking it would not appear to be militarily daunting for Turkey to deploy a strong blocking force along its border opposite Kobani and then envelop the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) armed elements with mechanized infantry and armor units crossing into Syria east and west of the Kurdish city. ISIS fighters could then be destroyed in detail. Although the engagement might not join Cannae or Austerlitz in the annals of battlefield artistry, its result might reverse ISIS' momentum in Syria and give pause to young male jihad tourists around the world who regard the false caliph and his ersatz state as winning propositions.

Indeed, it would not be in Ankara's interests were ISIS to prevail in Kobani, dislodge the entire population into Turkey, and establish itself on the Turkish border. Yet there seems to be a high-stakes double game of chicken going on. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other senior Turkish officials are asking the leaders of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)—the Syrian branch of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey and the dominant Kurdish militia in Syria—to forgo a Kurdish autonomous zone in Syria, break altogether with the Assad regime, and join with the nationalist opposition to battle the regime. Ankara is reportedly demanding that Washington put some muscle behind its Assad-should-step-aside policy in Syria by grounding the regime air force and supporting Turkey's creation of a protected zone in Syria from which Syrian nationalist forces could fight both ISIS and the regime.

The administration has reacted to the Turkish stance in two ways: with stepped-up airstrikes on ISIS positions—strikes which have reportedly been quite effective; and with rhetorical outrage. According to a report in The New York Times, a senior administration official said, “There’s growing angst about Turkey dragging its feet to act to prevent a massacre less than a mile from its border... After all the fulminating about Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe, they’re inventing reasons not to act to avoid another catastrophe. This isn’t how a NATO ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s throw from their border.” According to the Times, and without a hint of irony, the senior official "spoke anonymously to avoid publicly criticizing an ally." No such thing was avoided. The official, with the help of the Times, succeeded only in preserving his or her anonymity.

No doubt there is a crying need for frank and tough talk with Turkey. Professionals will pursue the matter privately and stay out of the business of anonymous media commentary. The gratuitous Times quote is fine as far as it goes. But is Ankara wrong to insist that Washington adopt in Syria a policy consistent with President Barack Obama's August 2011 Assad-step-aside dictum, a policy that would seek to address the principal cause of the effects being demonstrated by ISIS? No doubt it is unattractive political hardball to hold hundreds of thousands terrified civilians hostage to policy desiderata being demanded of Kurds and Americans. But Turkey is not wrong to demand that, at long last, Washington act on its perception that the Assad regime's violent sectarian response to political protest is the ISIS icing on a poisoned cake first baked beginning in 2003, when the regime began facilitating the passage to Iraq of foreign terrorists.

The Obama administration would, of course, prefer to avoid dealing with the reality that a key to ISIS’s survival in Syria is the survival of the Assad regime. Its focus is on Iraq; it sees Syria as an ISIS safe haven to be harassed and is not pleased with the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Kobani. Yet if Ankara is willing to do some heavy lifting in Syria—if it is willing to establish on Syrian territory a protected zone in which a nationalist governmental alternative to Assad and the pseudo-caliph can be established and sink roots—would it be too much for the United States to take the lead in grounding the regime's air assets for the duration of coalition air operations in Syria? Would it really be all that onerous to put an end to regime barrel-bombing and other airstrikes aimed at implicating the coalition in civilian casualties?

Turkish actions with respect to Syria over the past three years do not render it immune to criticism. Its position with respect to ISIS depredations in and around Kobani is not above sharp reproach. Indeed, its passive stance in the face of Kurdish hardship and panic is having a profoundly negative impact on the ability of President Erdogan to bind Turkish Kurds to his domestic political agenda.

Ideally, the Turkish Army would be the near-term sought-after coalition ground force component in Syria. Yet Ankara is correct in defining the Assad regime as the principal cause of the ISIS phenomenon in Syria and, with the political passing of Nouri al-Maliki, its principal recruiter from the Mediterranean through Mesopotamia. Whether Turkey is truly prepared to do a heavy lift in Syria is far from certain. What is beyond doubt is its unwillingness to do so while the United States holds its coat with its gaze transfixed on Baghdad and its back turned to Assad. Two NATO allies need to get down to business and sort out this kettle of fish.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.