This week’s arrival of peshmerga and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in Kobani to counter advances by the Islamic State (IS) marks a critical turning point in Turkey’s shifting attitude towards countering IS. Though falling short of the US-led coalition’s hopes of utilizing Turkey’s powerful military, the government’s blessing to allow these forces to cross Turkish territory into Syria is an important resolve in an otherwise convoluted (and at times counter-productive) approach. From inaction to sluggish collaboration, this trajectory, though complicated, is in an effort to navigate through a multidimensional region in turmoil, where IS is just one of Turkey’s numerous security concerns.
The US characterizes its current military action as a mission against IS, therefore, by definition, limiting the scope of its engagement to target a single militant group. Making this undertaking palatable to a war-weary American public, distance from the region allows the US the luxury to define its mission as limited to one against IS alone. Turkey, with its location as a Middle East bordering power, however, must concurrently address various forces on multiple fronts, making its own compounded security interests a hard fit within the limited US-defined struggle.
Prior to this recent approval to allow for reinforcements, Turkish leaders defended their path of inaction, referencing several unresolved issues, including their first priority of the fight against the Assad government, the need for a no-fly zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, and the unwillingness to militarily equip Kurdish fighters affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Turkish noncompliance with requests for aid enraged PKK leaders, provoking violent protests in Turkey’s southeastern provinces, culminating into a Kurdish attack on a Turkish military outpost.
In an unexpected turn of events, this aggression was met with Turkish air strikes against PKK positions, bringing the tortuous peace process between Turkey and the PKK, yet again, into peril. Motivated by international pressures, efforts to salvage peace negotiations, and to dilute the predominantly PKK-aligned Democratic Union Party (PYD) forces combating IS, Turkey publically changed its position, announcing support for Kurdish forces of less security concern, allowing for peshmerga and FSA troops to cross its border.
In analyzing Turkey’s course, the ruling AK Party’s willingness to disrupt the peace process with the PKK, heralded once as a legacy of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is an important indication that dismantling IS may not be Turkey’s lone top priority. Dragging its feet on US-led coalition requests for military involvement against IS militants, Turkey was surprisingly quick to respond militarily to Kurdish protests, deploying troops to its southeastern provinces and issuing retaliating air strikes. IS is not Turkey’s only critical security concern, and it’s unfair to suggest so simply because the US views this as priority number one.
For the US, its relatively safe distance from the conflict zone makes IS a different type of threat. It allows the US to define its mission based on the American public’s reluctance towards further Middle East entanglement, focusing its rhetoric on IS alone. In the Obama administration’s efforts to address the IS issue quickly before public opinion sways, once again, against military involvement, Americans will tolerate a certain amount of realpolitik, allowing leeway to share the battlefields with unlikely partners like Iranian-backed Shiite militias and PKK aligned resistance forces.
Turkey, however, does not have the same luxury to limit their mission. Turkey’s location forces it to engage in various regional conflicts in tandem, stopping it from aligning with groups it is confronting on different fronts. Though at times counterproductive to the effort against IS, Turkey’s involvement in a US-defined mission to dismantle IS will have to play within an array of other regional conflicts, such as the tumultuous relations between Kurds and Turks and the issue of Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical regime. The US, bookended by friendly neighbors to the north and south and large swaths of water to the east and west, does not share this same context. The US cannot expect Turkey to take the same one-dimensional approach against IS, or to disregard the other concurrent struggles impacting the region at large.