Over the weekend, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Turkey and discussed the situation in Syria with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Speaking to reporters, Biden said that Washington and Ankara were prepared for a military solution to the Islamic State crisis in Syria. The U.S. vice president called for an expanded Turkish role in the fight against IS.
Media coverage of this visit has disproportionately focused on the Kurdish issue, calling it a sore point between the Americans and the Turks. This narrative goes on to argue that this disconnect is a major obstacle to Turkey playing a bigger role against IS. In reality, the Kurds are not as much of an issue in U.S.-Turkish dealings as they are made out to be. The United States has little interest in or influence over the Kurdish issue and the Turks know this. At a time when Russia, Syria and IS are critical issues, Biden did not go to Turkey to discuss the Kurds. It is certainly not driving the American strategy for the region.
The Turks cannot concede on the Kurdish issue and the United States requires Turkish cooperation on other more vital issues. Therefore, bringing up the Kurdish matter while trying to get Turkey to escalate its involvement in the anti-IS campaign would only undermine the American bargaining position. Besides, at the conclusion of such meetings there is usually an official communiqué for the public, but also an agreement on what is to be unofficially leaked. Both sides leaked about the Kurds, but that doesn’t mean that the Kurdish issue was a major point during the conversations.
The Obama administration is not going to weaken the pressure on the Turks by bringing up an issue that is bound to upset them and guarantee that the Americans will not get anything. This is why Biden went out of his way to attack the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) when he remarked: “It is a terror group plain and simple and what they continue to do is absolutely outrageous.” Of course, while the PKK is a terrorist organization in the eyes of the U.S. government, the Syrian Kurds are American allies in the fight against IS, which is a major irritant for the Turks. Thus the Americans had an incentive to minimize any discussion on the Kurds.
This meeting was largely about getting Turkey to play the lead role in the fight against IS, in the broader matter of the Syrian civil war and in overall regional security. The tensions between Turkey and Russia regarding Syria also provide options to the Americans to secure Turkish cooperation in the efforts against the Russians.
In the short term, there are many reasons Turkey is reluctant to engage IS militarily. Kurds are a minor factor in this. Turkey’s main concern is that it doesn’t want to bear the prime responsibility in the anti-IS fight. Ankara is fearful of blowback in the form of IS insurgency within its own borders. Turkey is also well aware that this is a long-term commitment in which Turkish forces would have to occupy large parts of Syria at a high cost, even after the U.S. goal of defeating IS has been met.
Furthermore, Ankara is not convinced that a military solution is the only solution. The Turks actually feel that significant elements within IS can be tamed. Turkey and its main Arab ally, Qatar, are already working with many non-IS Salafist-jihadist groups, which include al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra. Between a potential diplomatic option and the threat from Kurdish separatism, the Turks are not enthusiastic about a major military intervention.
Also, Saudi Arabia moving to create an “Islamic military alliance” against Iran further complicates Turkish interests in Syria. While the Turks have indicated interest in the Saudi project, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Jan. 21 that the Saudi-led international coalition would not have combat forces. While the Saudis see the alliance as a tool with which to counter their chief adversary, Iran, on its path of international rehabilitation, the Turks would like the alliance to focus on fighting the Islamic State. There is no neat way to separate Turkish and Saudi initiatives given that they are directed at the same Syrian battlespace. From the Turkish perspective, Saudi efforts to confront Iran only add to the difficulties that the Turks will be facing in Syria.
Therefore, it will be a while before the various aspects of Turkey’s Syrian strategy are ironed out. In the meantime, the Islamic State will continue to take advantage of the lack of a coherent force willing to confront it. Sustained transcontinental attacks from IS will increase pressure on the Turks to be more decisive. In other words, objective geopolitical realities will prevail over any subjective preferences the Turks may have.