Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Tumultuous Politics of the U.S.'s Alliance with Turkey

By Jennifer KimPublished November 5, 2015

Written by Jennifer Kim, 11/05/2015 The border between Turkey and Syria is a vital crossing location for foreign fighters seeking to join IS as well as an ideal location for the U.S. to conduct military operations. However, despite the alliance, Turkey has also very recently admitted to attacking another vital ally of the U.S. - the Kurds. The U.S. is now caught in the midst of a long-standing regional conflict in its attempts to ally itself with every group in the region that can help it fight IS-- and such a tenuous position may eventually shake the solidity of the U.S.'s stance in the region.
Back in August, the U.S. and Turkey announced finalized plans for joint anti-Islamic State (IS) air operations. These plans solidified an agreement to collaborate in the fight against IS, with Turkey allowing the U.S. two main points: the U.S. is now allowed to conduct air operations from Turkey's Incirlik military base, and the U.S. can now join the already existing air campaign itself.  Turkey just recently faced a shoot-out with IS militants in the city of Diyarbakir, while police were carrying out house raids on the correct suspicion that militants were using the houses as hiding places. Two policemen and seven suspected IS militants were killed; another five policemen were injured and twelve militants were detained. However, just around the same time, Turkey admitted  to attacking a Kurdish militia group that has so far been a U.S. ally in the fight against IS.

So what exactly is happening?

The current contradictions in the U.S. and Turkey's hazy partnership against IS stem from  the existence of multiple, simultaneously occurring conflicts in the Middle Eastern region. The largest and most prominent is, of course, the threat of IS —the very reason the U.S. and Turkey agreed to the partnership at all. However, what cannot be discounted is the existence of quieter regional and sectarian conflicts that can and have caused conflicts of interests, even amongst allies.

Turkey's hostility towards  the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) stems from its designation  of the PYD as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Thus, Turkey considers the PYD a terrorist organization, unlike the U.S. and the European Union, who view the PYD as a legitimate political organization and a partner in the fight against IS. While the U.S. has publicly supported Turkey's campaign against the PKK, the Kurdish militia group known as the YPG (the current military arm of the PYD) is also one of the U.S.'s most effective allies in Syria against IS. Since last October, the YPG has relay to American military intelligence and locations for potential airstrike targets. In return, with the help of the U.S., the Kurds have managed to seize territory along the Turkish border from the IS.

In the case of the recent attack on the Kurds, Turkey declared that Kurdish fighters had crossed into an off-limits area in Syria—over a red line imposed by Turkey on the western side of the Euphrates River in northern Syria. On October 26, directly following the attack, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated, "We have said ‘The PYD will not pass to the west of the Euphrates. We'll hit them if they do.' And we did hit them twice. A Syrian helicopter was downed last year. An unmanned aerial vehicle was hit as well. It's not possible to do anything in Syria despite Turkey."

Davutoglu has also repeatedly stated the need for Turkey's cooperation on  action in Syria: "Could the Syria problem be resolved in an equation where Turkey is not present? Would a plan work in Syria despite Turkey? Had such a plan worked, [al-]Assad would still have the full control of the country today. Such a plan would not work because Turkey can never leave the fate of its 911-kilometer-long border to any country's decision. We have made it clear to the U.S. and to Russia". Davutoglu's words aren't incorrect; Turkey's partnership with the U.S. is extremely important in the fight against IS. Incirlik is not only much more conveniently located for U.S. missions into Syria than other existing options, but the Turkish border with Syria as a whole has been a key opening for foreign fighters to cross into Syria and join IS. The U.S. , looking to further clamp down on IS  reinforcements, needs Turkey's cooperation to enforce border protections.  

Thus, the U.S. is now caught in a tight place, unable to offend either of its  allies who are currently in a heated war with each other. Unable to afford to take sides, the U.S. has chosen to remain a cautious ally with both Turkey and the Kurds—but how long such a tenuous network of alliances and enemies can last is uncertain.