After a year of intense diplomatic negotiations, the Turkish government is now permitting the United States to use Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, which will allow American aircraft to fly missions in Syria and Iraq with greater operational effectiveness and economic efficiency.
The price of this agreement, however, may well be too high in the long run, both for the success of America’s anti-Islamic State campaign and for the stability of Turkey.
That’s because the Turkish government’s recent change of heart and its sudden willingness to allow American access to the Incirlik base was driven by domestic political considerations, rather than a fundamental rethinking of its Syria strategy.
Shortly after granting access to the base, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, launched a wave of airstrikes on Kurdish targets, reigniting a conflict that had been on the road to resolution. To make matters worse, Turkey has struck hard at Syrian Kurds who have, until now, been America’s most reliable ally in fighting the Islamic State, often called ISIS, in northern Syria.
American and Turkish policies toward Syria were always rooted in different visions of what Syria would look like if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad fell.
Washington’s policy has been inconsistent and vague, but it always envisioned a post-Assad Syria that would be pluralistic and guarantee minority rights. Turkey recognized early on that Mr. Assad’s brutal policies would lead to radicalization, but the Turkish policy of seeking a Sunni-dominated Syria, governed by forces rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood, has not helped matters.
Mr. Erdogan’s preference for Sunni dominance explains Turkey’s lax border policies over the past four years, as well as its tacit support for the extremist Sunni group the Nusra Front, and its failure to take the Islamic State seriously as a threat until the fall of Mosul and the beheadings of Western hostages. Even then, Turkey was reluctant to change course and fully back the American goal of degrading and defeating the militant group.
Mr. Erdogan’s overriding objective has instead been to achieve a parliamentary supermajority that will grant him an executive presidency and solidify what is rapidly becoming a one-party state. Since his party lost its governing majority in the June elections, dashing his desires, he has focused on forcing early elections — now set for November — to regain control of Parliament.
To do so, Mr. Erdogan hopes to tar the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party as a terrorist front and steal votes from the Nationalist Movement Party. He has used the current crisis as a smoke screen behind which to launch an air war against militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., in Iraq and artillery strikes on the Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D., in Syria. He has also unleashed a new wave of repression aimed at Kurds in Turkey, which risks plunging the country into civil war.
This strategy might help Mr. Erdogan win an election, but it is severely undermining the fight against the Islamic State. By disrupting logistics and communications links between the P.K.K. in Iraq and the P.Y.D. in Syria, Turkey is weakening the most effective ground force fighting the Islamic State in Syria: the Kurds.
We would do well to remember that it was P.Y.D. forces, with logistical support and reinforcement from the P.K.K., that liberated the city of Kobani last year and recently retook Tal Abyad, cutting off a key route for infiltration of arms and foreign fighters for the Islamic State.
America’s agreement with Turkey might yield more effective airstrikes, but that will come at the cost of losing the valuable real-time intelligence provided by Kurdish forces that is so crucial for targeting purposes.
In the long run, undercutting the Kurds will be extremely damaging to the anti-Islamic State effort since allowing Turkey to create a no-go zone for Kurdish forces will not carve out territory for moderate fighters; instead, it risks creating a safe haven for Islamist groups like the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, whose growing strength will exacerbate the toxic sectarianism and ethnic violence that has plagued Syria for the past four years.
Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter’s recent declaration that “we do want Turkey to do more in the fight” against the Islamic State prompted a pledge by Turkey’s foreign minister to step up its airstrikes against the group. But this raises the question of whether or not Turkey will call off its war against the Kurds.
If not, America’s deal with Turkey will prove to be a Faustian bargain. Short-term operational convenience is not worth the long-term danger of destabilizing Turkey and demoralizing the Kurdish forces that have carried the bulk of the burden in fighting militants.
An ally racked by violence and insurgency simply can’t play the role that the United States needs a secular, democratic Turkey to play in the turbulent Middle East.
Fortunately, America does have leverage. Turkish officials desperately crave the approval of their counterparts in Washington; the United States must not grant it.
Instead, the Obama administration should restrict Turkey’s access to senior-level meetings, reduce intelligence cooperation and withhold American support for Turkey in international financial institutions in the likely event that Mr. Erdogan’s policies precipitate an economic crisis.
Getting Turkish leaders to change course will be extremely difficult, but it is imperative to pressure them if Turkey is to avoid being sucked into the vortex created by a failed Syria policy and Mr. Erdogan’s dogged quest for absolute political power.
Eric S. Edelman is a former United States ambassador to Turkey and was the under secretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009.