By Mustafa Gurbuz
“Mr. Barzani has not had a conversation with me about Kurdish independence. We are against the division of Iraq,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in his first visit to the United States as Turkey’s President.
What Erdogan did not mention, however, was that the Turkish government had quietly pledged to defend the Kurdistan Region’s Peshmerga if they were attacked but “broke its promise” after the Islamic State (IS) advanced on Iraqi Kurdistan, President Massoud Barzani’s Chief of Staff Fuad Hussein said during a talk at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.
The Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) frustration with Ankara comes as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) emerges as an ally in the war on IS. Ankara and Erbil’s strategic agreement emerged from the Syrian crisis and was expected to be further strengthened given the turmoil in Iraq.
Declining bilateral trust, however, raises serious questions about the future of Erbil-Ankara relations. Despite the fact that both deeply value their economic partnership, Turkey’s peace negotiations with the PKK is a critical dynamic that will influence Ankara’s long-term security strategy.
Turkey now finds itself at a crossroads. In Washington, Ankara’s unwillingness to cooperate against IS is facing heavy scrutiny, particularly after IS released Turkish hostages who were held in Mosul for months.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has promised to join US efforts to cut the extremists’ revenue sources, especially oil smuggling via the Turkish border.
At the United Nations in New York, Erdogan recently indicated that Turkey is open to boosting military cooperation by making a strong statement: “We will continue to work against Al-Qaeda in the region and ISIS is an outgrowth of Al-Qaeda…We’re not weak. We’ve fought terrorists.”
Yet Ankara faces an unprecedented challenge as its two designated enemies, PKK and IS, recruits sympathizers from Turkey to fight in Syria. The PKK’s call for action against IS not only boosts its organizational base but also its global legitimacy.
Some western officials believe that it is only a matter of time before their governments, which label the PKK a terrorist organization, drop the designation and create formal ties with the PKK despite Turkey's objections. Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government recommitted to peace negotiations with the PKK after Erdogan’s electoral victory; however, recent developments signal a bumpy road ahead.
Two elements appear critical to solving Turkey’s conundrum: creating a buffer zone in northern Syria and the use of Turkey’s Incirlik air base in military operations against IS.
A buffer zone could provide relief for Turkey, which hosts more than 1 million Syrian refugees ¾ a number that is rapidly climbing and creating tension in border cities.
While Erdogan pushes for this so-called “safe zone,” the United States is trying to find ways to convince Turkey to allow the US military to use Incirlik.
Given that it has underground cells in Istanbul and few other Turkish cities, IS remains a formidable domestic threat to the country. The creation of a safe zone in Syria might prompt the Turkish government to allow the US or other forces to use its Incirlik base. A stronger Turkish presence in the Syria war could also help stabilize Syria’s Kurdish region, a key factor in the long-term fight against IS.
American officials, however, are concerned about Erdogan’s overall vision for the region. Beyond the IS crisis and offering humanitarian protection, a buffer zone could be used as a training ground for anti-Assad forces.
The US and Turkey have long been divergent about the future of Syria, particularly over how to arm opposition groups and carry out diplomatic strategies. The buffer zone is likely to be rejected by Iran, Russia and China, and will not be easy for the US to implement unilaterally.
The release of Turkish hostages provided an ample opportunity for the US and its allies to get Turkey on board against IS. Erdogan’s goal, to keep the AKP government strong before the 2015 national elections, is a significant factor in his willingness to cooperate.
How to navigate under these complex circumstances, however, is really up to his vision of the Middle East. Unless he convinces US diplomats that he is not obsessed with removing the Assad regime, the region will remain hot. As Kerry bluntly stated, “The proof will be in the pudding.”
Mustafa Gurbuz is a policy fellow at Center for Global Policy at George Mason University and a research fellow at Rethink Institute in Washington, DC. He is the author of Transforming Ethnic Conflict: Rival Kurdish Movements in Turkey (Forthcoming, Amsterdam University Press).