As the Obama administration continues to court potential allies for its US-led coalition against the Islamic State group, many critics focus on Turkey’s sluggish response to publicly announce its support for the US effort as a major shortcoming of the administration’s approach. In assessing Turkey’s reluctance, analysts highlight Turkey’s nonchalant attitude toward stemming the flow of foreign fighters across its borders, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s position that Bashar al-Assad must be removed from Syrian leadership first, and the wariness of a repeat situation where IS could hold Turkish government employees hostage.
Though important issues, the biggest obstacle for Obama’s strategy is how to address Turkey’s reluctance to arm the forces directly combating IS, which includes a bloc of Kurdish fighters well-known for their long, violent, and emotional struggle against the Turkish government.
The make-up of armed Kurds fighting IS includes forces of little security concern for Turkey, like the Peshmerga, but also more historically threatening groups, like the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). In providing arms, even if intended for the Peshmerga and other approved forces, there lies potential political and security risks, if these weapons were to ever end up in the hands of antagonistic Kurdish resistance fighters. In their recent counteroffensive to retake the Mosul Dam, US airpower, as well as fighters from the PKK, assisted the Kurdish Peshmerga against IS’s advances.
Though considered a terrorist organization by the US and Turkey, here, the PKK’s goals, align with the Turkish government. This alignment, however, does not erase the violent and emotional history between the PKK and Turkey. It would be politically hazardous domestically for Turkish leaders to arm Kurdish resistance fighters. Before the strength of the US-led coalition can be measured, the Obama administration must assess if its expectations for Turkey are unrealistic.
Though there have been disarmament negotiations with the PKK since 2009, the violent developments in Iraq and Syria makes the present a justifiably inconvenient time for the PKK to lay down its arms. Even with the current calm between Kurds and Turks, their complicated past makes for any linkage that connects Turkish-provided arms to weapons ending up in the hands of the PKK a political nightmare for Turkey’s leaders.
Not to diminish the validity of other factors contributing to Turkey’s reluctance to join a US-led coalition, but the wariness of equipping even moderate forces like the Peshmerga, once they have fought alongside an insurgent group of such emotional weight like the PKK, warrants Turkey’s limited public endorsement. Without Turkish assistance, failure of a US-led coalition against IS is almost guaranteed. Because of this, the Obama team should continue to focus on talks with Turkish leaders, addressing the sensitivities Turkey has towards providing arms to combat IS.