On CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Anne Marie Slaughter picked the Turkey-Kurd issue as one of the most important for 2016, and I agree with her. We have become increasingly dependent on the Kurds in the most volatile parts of the Middle East in which we are involved – Syria, Iraq, and Iran – and now the conflict is boiling over into Turkey.
Turkey used to be a reliable ally, a secular Muslim country with a competent government. Now it is becoming increasingly sectarian, and the government is becoming increasingly problematic. One of the main issues for the government is the irredentism of the Kurds in Turkey, who want to form a greater Kurdistan with their Kurdish brothers in Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Years ago, Turkey got the West to agree to characterize the Kurdish rebels in Turkey as terrorists. So, while the US is primarily worried about ISIS terrorists, the Turks are mainly worried about the Kurdish terrorists. When we ask the Turks for cooperation against terrorists, we are thinking, “Let’s go kill some ISIS rebels,” and the Turks are thinking, “Let’s go kill some Kurdish rebels.” Meanwhile the US is supporting the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, who have been the main line of defense against ISIS.
Turkey sees the Kurds as a threat to its very existence; the Kurds would cut off a chunk of Turkey and incorporate it into greater Kurdistan. Where does the US come down? On the side of the Kurds who are fighting with us in Iraq, or with the Turks who have been NATO allies for many years.
If we lose Turkey as a NATO ally, we face big problems in central Europe. Turkey controls the Bosporus. Without access to the Black Sea, we have real problems confronting Russia’s recent take over of Crimea, as well access in general to that part of the world. I would think the US Navy would really want Turkey on our side. In addition Turkish air bases give American air power better access to that unstable part of the world. We would miss them.
But if we don’t support the Kurds, what happens in Iraq and Syria? We have to balance our interests there against our interests in other parts of the world, including Russia and Ukraine. Plus, we have to worry about where Turkey is going. Is Erdogan a passing phase for Turkey, or does he represent a long-term turn toward a less Western, more Muslim state? We don’t want our opposition to push Turkey away toward a more religious Muslim orientation.