If you live inside the Beltway these days, you have to have an ISIS plan.
Part of living in the nation’s capital means accepting a tacit interest in all its attendant politics and intrigue. Go to a bar, get in a cab, meet a friend for lunch – 9 times out of 10, you’ll find yourself presenting a comprehensive opinion on ISIS. But despite being the buzzword of one of the world’s most powerful cities for over a year, the “ISIS Problem” still remains without a satisfactory solution. While everyone – bartenders, cabbies, lunch friends – can agree that the group and its actions present a real problem for global security, few can come up with anything approaching a comprehensive strategy for its defeat.
Global security can probably survive without the strategizing of cabbies and bartenders, but the fact remains that the White House, and the national security infrastructure at large, has also failed to roll out anything approaching a comprehensive ISIS strategy in the last year. President Obama was roundly criticized for this lack of direction last fall, and with the one-year anniversary of the anti-ISIS bombing campaign come and gone, media and senior military officials have decried the focus and intensity of the effort. Despite the discomfort, Obama’s recent foreign policy coup in securing a palatable Iran deal coupled with a lack of high-profile American kidnappings in the last few months have led to general complacency about the ISIS issue in the widespread media.
When in late July, the U.S secured Turkish cooperation in allowing the U.S. bombing campaign to access Incirlik Airbase to conduct strikes on ISIS, senior defense officials characterized the move as crucial to allowing U.S. airstrikes to increase in responsiveness and range. Turkey also agreed to assist in border control and the possible creation of a safe-zone along its Syrian border with an eye to protecting Syrian refugees, although the details on just how this will take place remain unclear. The agreements have been hailed by administration officials as a “game changer”; Turkish reluctance to crack down on ISIS, and to take a leadership role in the region at large, have long been criticized by the West.
But in all the back slapping over the deal, Obama’s foreign policy team seems to have ignored a crucial fact of life in the Middle East – the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy. Within days of the Incirlik deal, alert news outlets and experts were questioning whether Turkish cooperation might not instead be aimed at rolling back the increasingly strong position of the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Some even argued that the move was a domestic political strategy of strongman Turkish premier Tayyip Erdogan to marginalize anyone associated with Kurds in general. Erdogan’s ruling AKP party failed to secure a majority in the June 2015 elections due in large part to electoral gains by the pro-Kurdish HDP. These critics argue that abandoning the Kurdish peace process and forcing retaliatory strikes by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) would marginalize the legitimacy of anyone supporting the Kurdish agenda, forcing Turks to rally around the flag or risk being branded as pro-terrorist and boosting Erdogan’s chances to recapture total control of the government come November. Whether this is true or not, the fact remains that after a month of involvement, Turkey has yet to turn its military on ISIS. It was only today that the US and Turkey reached an agreement to have Turkish fighter jets join the air campaign against ISIS. How active Turkey will be in this campaign still remains to be seen. Despite this lack of focus, the Obama administration has only recently begun to sense trouble. Still, senior officials are only willing to tentatively criticize Erdogan’s provocations against the Kurds, instead emphasizing the importance of Turkey’s participation in the fight, regardless of its focus.
While U.S. officials may be willing to wait for Erdogan to finish his Kurdish campaign before he turns to ISIS, events on the ground are quickly turning sour. In Diyarbakir on the Syrian border, conflict has broken out between the PKK. and Turkish government forces, hardly a surprise given the focus of Turkish airstrikes on the declared terrorist group. More concerning, however, is the fact that it is not just dedicated PKK members engaging government forces and vice versa. In a year in which Armenians called on Turkey to officially recognize its actions a century ago as genocide, Turkish Kurds are increasingly finding themselves the target of government provocation. Simple participation in pro – PKK. rallies can lead to lengthy jail sentences for young Turkish Kurds; meanwhile, rumors circulate that Turkey has for the past year allowed ISIS bands to cross the Turkish border to strike at Syrian Kurds from behind. The result is the same in Turkey as it has been across Syria and Iraq – youths are fleeing cities, joining up with whatever marginal groups they can find identity and security with. In Diyarbakir, this increasingly means the PKK.
As Erdogan shows no sign of relenting on his aggressive campaign against the Kurds, all signs point to a bad situation getting far worse. Kurdish youths have armed themselves with shotguns and Molotov cocktails and taken to the streets. Nights are filled with protests and snipers reminiscent of Kiev 2014. In recent days, prices on small arms in Diyarbakir have skyrocketed. Far from helping to establish a secure safe-zone in Syria, Turkey is on the brink of plunging a vast swath of its border into all-out conflict.
Turkey has a history of bullying the Kurds previously, but a lot has changed, however, in the past two decades. The Kurds of today are well armed and battle-hardened from years of having to take care of themselves. Furthermore, they are desperately engaged in a battle for survival against a vicious ISIS. Turkish provocation is likely driving them into a corner from which there is only one escape: attack. Far from locking down a crucial ally in stabilizing the region, Obama’s policy of involving Turkey has put even more of the region on the brink of chaos. Regardless of how “game-changing” Incirlik may be to the air war, it isn’t worth losing a large swath of Turkey to unrest and reducing the effectiveness of the Kurds, the only group in the region who has had success against ISIS. Once again, failure to comprehend the long-term ramifications of any act in the Middle East threatens to get Obama into trouble. Unlike the bartenders and cabbies of Washington, the President and his foreign policy team need to rethink their ISIS strategy, and quick.