The US-Turkey Alliance Against Whom?

The recent deal between Turkey and the United States that allows US air power to use the Incirlik airbase in exchange for maintaining a safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border represents Turkey’s boldest step yet in the war on the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). But this deal appears to be more of an exchange than a full partnership in the pursuit of mutual interests, as recently examined in a press call with Rafik Hariri Center Director and Fellows and as New Atlanticist Editor Ashish Kumar Sen illustrates in his recent article, “Turkey’s War on Syria: Of Kurds and Ways.”

The use of Incirlik airbase would greatly facilitate the US-led anti-ISIS coalition’s aerial campaign against the extremist militants in northern Syria, but Turkey’s view of the ISIS problem includes the Assad regime as its root cause–a perspective that the United States does not share. The safe zone, long a prerequisite for Turkey to join the coalition, would enable Syrian rebels to engage Assad’s forces in Aleppo province, but the United States fears the consequences of Turkish support for unvetted rebel groups. Furthermore, Turkey sees the growing strength of Kurdish groups as a threat while the United States sees them as an asset and a capable fighting force in the fight against ISIS.

Rafik Hariri Center Fellow Faysal Itani captured the essence of the problem, saying:

Whatever the official positions, there is no way to perfectly align the US and Turkish goals here.

Rafik Hariri Center Senior Fellow Frederic Hof noted that the agreement, nonetheless, would represent a positive development–if civilians suffering at the hands of the Syrian regime can find some protection from the ravages of war and barrel bombs:

Does the very limited territorial scope of this arrangement presage a broad Turkish ground and air intervention against ISIL in eastern Syria, one supported by coalition aircraft; and will this tiny zone enable some form of protection for Syrian civilians living near, but not inside, the zone from the Assad regime’s brutal and illegal barrel bombing campaign?

A recent press call also featured Vice President of the Atlantic Council and Director fo the Rafik Hariri Center Ambassador Francis Ricciardone. Addressing the Turkish-Kurdish tensions that have risen in the past few weeks, Ambassador Ricciardone notes:

What is really interesting for me is that there seems to be another evolution of Turkish thinking – national security thinking – with respect to the Kurds. … We have all differentiated quite explicitly and overtly the PYD from the PKK. The one is operating against the Turkish state and is an – we consider an international terrorist group, and it’s quite legitimate for Turkey to defend itself against them, attack their bases in Iraq, et cetera. The other – the PYD – has explicitly said they have no quarrel with the Turkish state, and has explicitly long ago taken on ISIS and therefore aligned its interests quite explicitly, as a matter of policy, with those of the Western coalition.

It sounds to me as if the Turks have now come to make that same distinction. 

Read the full article on the New Atlanticist blog.

Read the transcript of the press call here or listen to the audio recording below with Ambassadors Ricciardone and Hof.