As a NATO “ally” and a Middle East strategic partner, Turkey has been part of America’s sphere of influence for decades. Now, America finds itself in an awkward new relationship with Turkey. While American planes take off from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to run bombing missions in Syria and Iraq in support of Kurdish allies there, Turkey is flying sorties in support of its ground forces fighting other Kurdish forces in the region. In other words, America and Turkey are using the same base to fight a proxy war against one another.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and author of Perilous Partners: The Benefits and Pitfalls of America’s Alliances with Authoritarian Regimes, notes in The American Conservative that there is growing concern about the behavior of the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He writes (abridged):
Tensions have existed for years between Washington and Ankara over the Kurdish population in both Iraq and Syria. U.S. officials regard the Kurds as able fighters and democratic secular allies in the struggle against Islamic extremism. Turkish leaders view them and their agenda for an independent Kurdish homeland as a menace to Turkey’s sovereignty and territorial integrity—especially since a majority of Kurds reside in southeastern Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government deems the highly autonomous Kurdish entities across the border in Iraq and Syria as dangerous models and a magnet for their secessionist-minded ethnic brethren inside Turkey. U.S.-Turkish policy disagreements regarding the Kurds have gained new intensity in recent months and could become a catalyst for an irreparable breach in ties between the two NATO members.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis has stated that the United States is “very alert” to the escalating tensions between Turkey and the Kurds and is quite concerned about those developments. But it isn’t clear what the Trump administration would—or could—do to restore calm. Ankara shows no sign of backing down now that Turkish leaders have embarked on a full-scale military offensive.
There is also growing concern about Ankara’s external behavior. The Erdogan regime’s policy regarding ISIS over the years has been ambivalent at best. A noticeable rapprochement between Turkey and Russia is also evident.
The Erdogan government seems determined to crush the Kurds and to chart an independent course both domestically and internationally, regardless of U.S. wishes.
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