Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Turkey, Syria, and the United States: Quagmires Are Us

by Steven A. Cook
July 27, 2015

A Turkish F-16 jet returns to the military airbase in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir November 7, 2007 (Osman Orsal/Reuters).


This weekend Turkey and the United States took steps toward getting more heavily involved in the Syrian quagmire. First, after a year of protracted negotiations, Turkey agreed to allow the United States to use Incirlik airbase to conduct operations against the so-called Islamic State. In return, the Obama administration has agreed to the establishment of a “safe zone” in northwestern Syria that “moderate Syrian opposition forces” would protect along with Turkish and American airpower. Second, Turkey undertook airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Syria and the forces of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq.

The early reaction has focused almost exclusively on Ankara’s sudden interest in combatting the Islamic State and the establishment of safe zones as potential “game changers” in the fight against Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Assad regime. In reality this effort is likely to achieve much less than expected. It is true that the Turks have gotten more serious about the threat of the Islamic State, especially since the Suruc bombing on July 20, but Ankara, which has grown increasingly uncomfortable as the Kurds have made gains against Islamic State forces in Syria, is primarily interested in suppressing Kurdish nationalism. This has placed Washington in the odd position of having essentially given the go-ahead to its most reluctant ally in the fight against the Islamic State to combat some of the most effective fighters in that conflict —the Kurds, both the Turkish Kurds of the PKK and the affiliated forces of their Syrian cousins, the People’s Protection Units, known by the acronym YPG—under the guise of combatting the same enemy. This seems like a steep price to pay for the use of Incirlik while threatening to draw the United States into a war with no end.

Why now? The United States and Turkey have until now disagreed over how to deal with the Islamic State. The Turks have maintained the position that bringing down the Assad regime in Syria would go a long way toward defeating the Islamic State. It is also a position that is politically self-serving since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have made it a matter of principle that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad “must go.” The Obama administration has taken the view that Ankara was overlooking the possibility that Assad’s demise might actually benefit al-Baghdadi, whose forces would take advantage of the additional chaos and bloodletting that would surely ensue. The White House has also been more focused on Iraq than Syria, much to Turkish chagrin. As the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly reported today, a number of recent developments altered Turkish and American calculations including the Islamic State’s threat to the Azaz border crossing along the northwest of the Syrian-Turkish frontier and Kurdish control of the Tel Abyad border crossing near Kobani. There was also the apparent Islamic State suicide bombing last Monday, which killed thirty-two people in Suruc, demonstrating the Islamic State’s ability to do damage inside of Turkey. All three developments have combined to convince the Turks that it was time to act, but for Ankara it is not just about the Islamic State.

What are the Turks up to? Ankara clearly has an Islamic State problem, but it also has a Kurdish nationalism problem. The former is new while the latter has been central in the politics of the Turkish Republic since its founding in 1923. Consequently the Turks have made combatting the Kurds their priority. Over the thirteen years since it came to power, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has sought to resolve this historical challenge through a variety of initiatives that would diminish the appeal of Kurdish nationalism for Turkey’s Kurds. These included a $12 billion investment—the AKP insists it was $25 billion—in the predominantly Kurdish southeast in 2005 and 2006, an ill-defined “Kurdish opening” in 2009, and, for the last three years, a peace process with the PKK. Yet the political pressure has become too much given that Syria’s Kurds have sought to establish an independent canton along the Turkish-Syrian frontier and that they have become partners of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State. In the background, of course, is the advanced state of Iraqi Kurdistan’s drive for independence, the failing peace process with the PKK, and the recent strong showing of the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party in Turkey’s parliamentary elections. The Turks quite obviously fear that these developments will encourage the fourteen million Kurdish citizens of Turkey to seek changes that threaten the republic. This is in part why the Turks stood by and watched when the Islamic State laid siege to the Kurdish-Syrian town of Kobani last year. For Turkey, taking part in coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State and rounding up suspected supporters is a side benefit to the actual goal of disrupting Kurdish plans in Syria and hitting the PKK. If there is any doubt about Turkish aims, Erdogan declared in late June, “We will never allow the establishment of a state in Syria’s north and our south.”

The Turks deserve praise for the way in which they have managed a huge number of Syrian refugees—1.8 million by last official count—but in addition to relieving some of the pressure of hosting so many refugees in Turkey, Ankara’s idea of a “safe zone” carved out of northen Syria seems also intended to make sure that Syria’s Kurds are unable to consolidate their battlefield gains against the Islamic State into what they call Rojava, or Western Kurdistan. The fact that this zone will be under the authority of some as-of-yet-to-be-determined Syrian opposition forces with Turkish and American protection from the air makes it significantly less likely that the Kurds will achieve their aims. Upon the announcement of the safe zone, the Syrian Kurdish leader, Salih Muslim, warned that the Turkish-American plan was essentially a ruse that was cover for sending Turkish forces into northern Syria. If Muslim is correct, then no one should expect that the forces affiliated with his Democratic Union Party will just allow it to happen. So instead of making the Islamic State their battlefield focus, as they have been doing with American support, the Syrian Kurds will also fight the Turkish army.

What are the risks for the United States? By signing up with the Turks to establish a safe zone and then provide support to the Syrian opposition in its efforts to liberate Idlib and Aleppo, the United States may have cemented an alliance between Assad and the Islamic State. Defending both the safe zone and liberating large portions of Syrian territory seem way beyond the capacity of “moderate Syrian opposition forces”—though perhaps not the extremist variety. It seems that while Washington has undermined an ally in the fight against the Islamic State, it has given every reason for the Islamic State and Assad’s forces to work together—not unprecedented at all—against the safe zone and approved opposition forces attacking from the north. Based on experience, Turkish and American officials clearly believe that airpower can be decisive against both Assad’s battered forces as well as Islamic State fighters, but there is no guarantee that what worked in one area will work in another. There can be no assurances of success, but after years of avoiding the Syrian conflict, the Incirlik-for-a-safe-zone trade now puts the United States at risk of getting sucked into it. What happens if the Syrian opposition forces assigned to protect the safe zone cannot manage it? The Turks would likely happily deploy forces to help, but there would be tremendous pressure on the United States to do the same if only to keep an eye on the Turks. What if, warnings to Assad aside, Syrian air defenses—a major threat according to the Pentagon—bags an American plane? How would Washington respond? Like the debate about a “no-fly zone” at an earlier stage of the conflict revealed, there are myriad ways in which the United States can be pulled into Syria.

How does the agreement with Turkey help the United States achieve its goals in Iraq and Syria? Ankara is a less potent ally in the fight against the Islamic State than the Kurds, it is no longer a significant player in the future of Iraq, and it maintains a wholly unrealistic view of what will happen in Syria if the Assad regime falls. The Middle East is hard and Syria is especially complex, but it is difficult to see what the United States gets out of the deal other than the runways of Incirlik. That is not going to solve either Syria or the problematic conditions that created the Islamic State, but it will pull Washington closer to war on Turkish terms. In Turkish it is called bataklık, or quagmire.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    I am acquainted with your jaded view of things Turkish from your previous writings. You counsel your audience to take a dim view of this recent agreement between the US and Turkey. In doing so, you reveal your distrust of Turks, and play heavily on that to suggest that this agreement is ill advised. “What are the Turks Up To”, you ask. The question obviously conveys a sense that the Turks are not to be trusted. But I in turn might as easily ask, What are You Up to ? What is your agenda ?

    You have a backround in the field of Middle East affairs, and you have given some thought to this matter. But I am disappointed in the results, for what I see in this piece is mostly a procession of strawman arguments thrown up in support of a conclusion that the US government should not cooperate with Turkey to put an end to the troubles in Syria and Iraq – or if you take exception to that goal, more narrowly, to kill ISIS. (Maybe you want to see the Syrian civil war continue.)

    Perhaps the Turks bear watching. Perhaps, as you suggest, they do not deserve a free pass. But nothing can be gained by refusing to cooperate with them in dealing with these problems.

    Of all the things I could think of to term as risks resulting from US involvement in Syria, “quagmire” is the least serious. It is in fact, a sadly off-point and inappropriate characterization of US interests and concerns at stake, for the very reason that, as you have observed, the US has no intention of ever intervening in Syria to put a stop to the bloodshed, and thus entering the sand. The Obama administration has no intention that the slightest hair on the head of any American serviceman should be harmed on the soil of Syria, while Syrians have been gassed and tortured, and bombed, killed by the 100eds of thousands, and driven from their homes by the millions. They are dying on boats in the Mediterranean Sea, while America flies bombing missions from Thirty Thousand Feet against an enemy with no air defenses.

    And you say, from the comfort of your office, thousands of miles away, that the US, because it has agreed to support Turkish intervention in Syria, to create a safe haven along its border, is headed in to a quagmire.

    That is sheer nonsense. The risk the US faces is one of steadily worsening consequences, resulting from negligence and apathy, if it turns its back on this problem, and fails to deal with it effectively. This requires cooperation with a neighboring NATO ally that has more at stake that us.

    What Are the Turks Up To ? There are close to two million Syrian refugees in Turkey. There are also ISIS sympathizers and activists, both Turkish and foreign. You seem to rate responding to the suicide bombing in Suruc as a matter of secondary importance. They are really more afraid of Kurdish Nationalism. Bull s**t. The house next door is on fire. They want the fire out. That is what they are up to.

    That however, is not entirely what the Obama Administration wants: not enough to want to do anything about it. For the way to put out a fire is with water. And the way to stop a war is not with bombs.

    Your reasoning reveals that you totally misunderstand this subject. “Ankara is a less potent ally in the fight against the Islamic State than the Kurds” you say. So the US should side with Syrian Kurds against a NATO ally ?

    How absurd. How dangerously idiotic.

    In answer to your utterly naïve question, this agreement helps the US to achieve its goals in Syria and Iraq —


    You are wrong to say that the Turks are at fault for wishing to see an end to the Assad regime and for wishing in some way to bring that about. You are wrong in suggesting that this should not also serve US interests abroad. You are wrong in suggesting that we not disturb the Iranian backed Assad regime, for fear of what might follow. And you are wrong in supposing that we can defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq, by bombing, while giving the Assad regime kid glove treatment. Your very argument that the regime has cooperated with ISIS -made common cause with it, in an effort to destroy the very forces we and the Turks supposedly favor in Syria, and have supported, undercuts all those assertions, and renders your analysis inconsistent.

    In order to rid Syria, and by the way, Iraq, of ISIS, the Assad regime must go. There must be a government in Syria that the US can support. A fortiori, there must be a government Turkey can support. ISIS will persist as long as there is no such government – as long as the Assads persist. And if there is no such government, and the Assads do fail, as they eventually will, then, indeed, as you warn, ISIS will be the beneficiary.

    Conclusion: Turkish policy towards Syria is correct. American policy, and its apologists, are in error. Therefore, the US can and must strive to run a three-legged race with its ally Turkey, in respect to these matters. It is a matter of straight forward diplomacy, for they make no bones about what matters to them, and what they are up to. As Fred Hof over at the Atlantic Council has observed, differences regarding Kurds in Syria may be over come.


  • Posted by sam

    haewel. did you hear what you just said. gobbledygook. it was the turks who set this off, they blindly turned their back against their former friend Assad and helped create the savge barbarians, daesh. now you’re trying to vindicate them,shame on you. as to the terrorist attacks on their soil,well they’ve got to have a taste of their own medicine and face the music.

  • Posted by 11B

    “The house next door is on fire, that is what they’re up to”. Uhh well, it’s been on fire for YEARS now, and the Turks have done nothing. In fact, they have tacitly allowed ISIL to fester as a means to an end- getting rid of Assad.

    It’s hard to take the Turk’s new-found will to attack ISIL seriously when they have been AWOL for the past three years and then, when suddenly they decide to enter the fray, they use the opportunity to bomb the PKK. Coincidence? Clearly not. A deal was made to trade Incirlik and Turkey’s involvement in Syria for a free hand with Turkish Kurds. Any college freshman can read those tea leaves.

    Mr Cook’s point, which is valid, was that yes, cooperating with Turkey is great, but at what cost are we doing so? Establishing a “safe-zone” in northern Syria is clearly a ruse to head the Kurds off at the pass, if you will, and disallow them any future nation state there.

    It’s not cynicism, it’s diplomacy. It’s how this stuff works. To think that ANYONE in Syria has good intentions or doesn’t have blood on their hands, including the US and Turkey, is quite naive.

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    By way to rejoinder to whom in may concern, and to make the point of my prior comment perfectly clear:

    The PKK is a separatist group in Turkey that employs terrorist methods. It is recognized by the United States as a terrorist group. It has for years been an enemy of the Turkish state and visa versa. A long term ceasefire having recently expired, certain PKK actors last week killed two Turkish police officers, claiming that Turkey was to blame for the ISIS suicide bombing in Suruc.

    Turkey, in turn, bombed PKK positions in the mountains of Iraq for years. It has been doing this for years. In the past, it has never asked for permission from the United States. It never will. It does not feel that it needs that permission.

    The recent agreement struck between the United States and Turkey concerning Syria has little bearing on these conditions and no effect on them. Neither Turkish forbearance from attacking the PKK, nor US objections to that conduct or entreaties to forbear from it, are matters which this agreement addressed, nor presumably points of contention in the negotiations that led to it.

    Thus the US in negotiating this arrangement to use Turkish airbases to fight ISIS, gave up nothing in respect to the PKK, and little or nothing with respect to other Kurdish elements. It had nothing in the first place to give.

    Given recent events, a renewal of hostilities between the PKK and Turkey was in the cards. This is regrettable. They were close to a peace settlement. And as other commentators have noted, any college freshman with a basic knowledge of Turkey could read those tea leaves.

    But this has been nothing within the might and right of the Obama administration to give or withhold. These facts render Mr. Cook’s assertion that the US has given something important away to the Erdogan government in return for these “privileges” patently invalid. This is a win/win agreement. The only thing the White House has given away is its stubborn insistence that it can have its way in the Middle East without concerning itself with the desires of Turkey, and the attitudes of the Turkish government toward the Syrian civil war. It has finally, it seems, decided to stop standing on its own foot in relation to these matters.

    Other commenters, following Mr. Cook’s lead, are right to be skeptical. Actions speak louder than words. And the Turks do bear watching – just as much as the Obama administration. But they have been absolutely clear about not wanting to see a Kurdish faction gain control over a wide swath of their frontier with Syria. They have made it plain to all who care to listen tha that is one of the factors motivating them at this time.

    So like it or not, those are the facts.

    Both Turkey and the US benefit from this agreement. There is no great loss to either party in respect to it. If anything, it does not go far enough. It may indeed come to naught. There are underlying problems with the US approach to dealing with the Syrian civil war, and ISIS, which this agreement does not resolve. But Mr. Cook fails to prove his point. He fails to show how the Obama administration has gone astray in this instance. His “quagmire” warning is baseless.


  • Posted by sam

    TPH, why don’t you consider the core of the matter, the whole crisis started when turkey and it’s allies made the strategic blunder that in order to stop the Iranian influence in Syria and by extension in Lebanon they should destabilize those countries and ultimately topple the Assad and undermine the power base of Hezbollah. we don’t make them out to be saint,far from it, as a matter of fact we Iranians have never been fond of the Assads, and even for some time in the aftermath of the revolution there had been political campaign against it but i believe its quite preposterous to send thousands of innocent people of all ethnicity to death by the sword of these barbaric jihadists just because we don’t like the regime or deem it as a dictatorship. Syria is a far less evil force than Saudis who initiated the idea of intolerant Wahhabi mentality and financed them heftily. the meandering argument as to what PKK does in turkey or whether the american tacid approval for the Turkish forces to enter Syria and so on and so forth is just moot.

  • Posted by akephalos

    The Turkish Kurds have been quite vocal over the last year or so about having given up territorial ambition in Turkey. Have we also just helped undermined this progress,Turkish democracy itself, sparked a Turkish civil war, and destroyed the newly elected pro-democracy, conciliatory HDP?

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    Excellent question from the last commenter. Answer, we have not laid the groundwork for this. It is completely within the hands of the Turkish people.

    Mr. Cook should now take some satisfaction from the fact that his essay has engendered a multi-national discussion of the issues that includes an Iranian perspective, much to his credit and that of the CFR.

    No one desires an Iranian-American rapproachment more sincerely than does this commenter. No one would be more pleased to see Iran turn down the road towards peaceful coexistence and be more willing to do the same. Some day, I would like to have tea in Tehran.

    I also would have no objection to the continued existence of Hezbollah, provided it were to renounce violence, and continue its evolution in to a political force. But events seem to be trending the other way, and the blame does not rest with Turkey or the United States.

    For there to be peace in the Middle East, the Assad regime must go.

    I do not say this because of my dislike for it. If I could, I would turn the clock back on the Syrian Civil War and have Bashar continue down the path towards liberalization. But what’s does is done. The Assad regime besides being outrageous, has brought holy war to the Middle East. It has become the poster-child for a world-wide recruitment effort for homicidal maniacs of a Sunni persuasion that calls itself “ISIS”. The Assad gang has no one to blame for this but itself.

    If someone were to step forward and say: “Excuse me, but the replacement government must be satisfactory to Iran”, I would have a reply to that objection, and it would be this:

    Fine, provided it is also agreeable to the United States, which means, that it not be made up of war criminals, and that it not have as a purpose, making war on Israel or any of its neighbors.

    I do not rate the chances of any of this happening in the near future very good.


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