If the US wants to accomplish its goals in Syria, it will probably need to pick a side in one of the world’s bloodiest ethnic conflicts.
The bombings in Istanbul on Saturday, December 10 made clear that the relationship between Turkey and its Kurdish minority will not be reconciled anytime soon. The United States will not be able to heal their fractured relationship to unify both sides against the Islamic State (IS). The Turks and Kurds are America’s most reliable allies in the coalition fighting to dismantle IS. US President-elect Donald Trump made it clear during his campaign that defeating IS will be a primary foreign policy objective. But he won’t be able to make any serious moves against IS in the short term without picking a side in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Taking a side to defeat IS now could have disastrous consequences for America’s long-term strategy, with any alienated party likely swinging into Russia’s camp of regional allies.
Trump will find himself unable to bring the Kurds and Turks together early in his presidency. He may risk throwing American weight behind a single combatant in an effort to appear decisive in contrast with President Obama, whom he has criticized for taking small, ineffective actions in the Middle East. But the costs of choosing to align with either Turkey or the region’s Kurds could be too high for Trump, who may wait for a more opportunistic scenario to emerge.
The Turkish-Kurdish relationship has soured rapidly in recent months. Just over a year ago, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a predominantly Kurdish entity, amassed 12% of the popular vote in the November 2015 general election. By garnering more than the 10% minimum requirement for national representation, the Kurds finally had national-level representation, with 78 seats in the Grand National Assembly. Even more importantly, President Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) tallied 49%, thereby losing its majority.
Many observers considered this the high-water mark of Turkish democracy, and the tide has since withdrawn. The HDP and AKP were unable to reconcile their differences to form a ruling coalition, which would have likely ended interethnic violence. Instead, the AKP established a coalition relationship with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a right-wing political faction with strong Turkic-nationalist and anti-Kurdish sentiments. After this summer’s coup attempt, the relationship between the AKP and MHP solidified. Other political elements, including the HDP, have since found themselves in Erdogan’s understandably paranoid crosshairs. Although there is little evidence to suggest the Kurds attempted to topple Erdogan (who blames the attempt on an exiled Turkish ideologue, Fethullah Gulen), the Turkish regime has since arrested prominent Kurdish leaders, including Kurdish members of parliament, and attempted to form links between the Kurds and the coup. Those arrests were followed by a Kurdish car bombing in the city of Diyarbakir.
This weekend’s attacks have killed 38, mostly police officers, and injured over 150. The twin bombings, one at a soccer stadium and the other in prominent Taksim Square, targeted police posts. The city of Istanbul alone has seen an unprecedented 5 terrorist bombings this year. A Kurdish faction calling itself the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) claimed responsibility for the bombings, while the government attributed them to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a longstanding Kurdish terror organization.
Turkey, a NATO member, allows the US and other nations to use its airbases to launch attacks on IS positions in Syria and Iraq. Turkish forces also operate alongside a small contingent of Americans in northern Syria. The Kurds, meanwhile, are the most effective force on the ground in both countries. US Special Forces teams are currently deployed alongside Kurds in Iraq and Syria, and the Obama administration has given Kurdish militants weaponry and training. The Turkish government has long grumbled about the close US relationship with the Kurds, complaining vehemently that US aid provided to Kurds in Iraq and Syria has filtered into Turkey and catalyzed violence there. The US-Turkish relationship was already strained by this before the June 2016 coup attempt. Fethullah Gulen, whom the Turks claim inspired and designed the coup, lives in Pennsylvania, and the State Department has not approved Turkey’s extradition request.
These complexities now face the incoming Trump administration, which has vowed to annihilate the Islamic State and thereby restore peace and order to the Middle East. Trump proclaimed himself to be “a big fan of the Kurds” while on the campaign trail, and expressed his desire to bring Turkey and the dispersed Kurdish population together to form a US-Turk-Kurd anti-IS triumvirate. He will face reality on January 20, and will not be able to get the Turks and Kurds together in the near term.
If Trump opts to pick a side now, Turkey may seem like a logical choice given its status as a NATO ally of the United States. However, Trump has been critical of NATO and cannot be expected to make conventional foreign policy decisions. Besides its Kurdish conflict, IS militancy and domestic troubles, Turkey has a strategic interest in toppling Syria’s Assad regime. That is no small order; Assad is backed by Russian naval, air and intelligence assets, not to mention Iran’s elite Quds Force. Turkey will demand at least the following three things before cooperating fully with the US in its battle against IS: the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, approval and support for Turkish efforts to depose Assad, and an end to military support for Kurdish factions in Iraq and Syria. By opting to back Turkey, Trump would alienate the Kurds, who would find themselves in need of a new foreign patron. The obvious choice is Russia. After all, Vladimir Putin never misses an opportunity to fill a gap left where American influence has disappeared.
Turkey’s demands may be too high of a price to pay, even for a billionaire president. The Kurds offer Trump an on-the-ground army composed of thousands of men and women willing to die fighting the Islamic State with or without American support. The US has been limiting contributions to Kurdish militants to appease Turkey’s protests against the policy of arming Kurdish proxy forces in the Middle East. But opting to write a blank check to the Kurdish war effort against IS would effectively grant Trump an instant army in Syria and Iraq, one with a proven record of victories against IS and experience fighting alongside US forces in a coordinated air-ground campaign. However, Trump will have to weigh such an option carefully. Throwing complete support behind the Kurds will alienate Erdogan, forcing him to consider leaving NATO to launch a Turkish intervention against the Kurds – likely with the support of Russia, Iran and Syria, who also see the Kurds as a threat to Assad’s regime.
The last option for Trump is to wait and hope for better circumstances to arise in the Middle East. The Turkish-Kurdish relationship has often waxed and waned, and will continue to evolve slowly with time. Trump, faced with no good options, will certainly make symbolic and provocative statements about the Middle East (as he always does), but he may effectively do nothing to end the region’s raging conflicts. With no clear path to success on this issue, Trump may simply ignore it and focus on winning easier political battles on the domestic policy front.