Kurdish people carry flags and flash victory signs as they take part in a protest in the city of al-Derbasiyah, on the Syrian-Turkish border, against what the protesters said were the operations launched in Turkey by government security forces against the
Kurdish people carry flags and flash victory signs as they take part in a protest in the city of al-Derbasiyah, on the Syrian-Turkish border, against what the protesters said were the operations launched in Turkey by government security forces against the Kurds, February 9, 2016.
Rodi Said / Reuters

Nearly seven years ago, U.S. President Barack Obama traveled to the Turkish capital, Ankara, to address the country’s parliament. Turkey was second only to Russia in its need of a “reset.” The war in Iraq had damaged Washington’s ties with Ankara, which had warned of the dangers of a U.S. invasion and paid a price for its destabilizing effects. The new U.S. president’s gauzy rhetoric before the Grand National Assembly about how Turkish and Americans soldiers stood shoulder-to-shoulder “from Korea to Kosovo to Kabul” and his admiration for “Turkey’s democracy” seemed to hit exactly the right notes. It was the dawn of a new era in which close relations with a large, prosperous, democratizing, predominantly Muslim country would exemplify a more constructive, less belligerent course for U.S. foreign policy.

Now at the tail end of that era, Washington seems to have gotten nowhere with Ankara. The issues at stake are different, but discord and mistrust characterize what was supposed to have been a “model partnership” based on both common interests and values. What happened?

In a sense, nothing. Despite the way foreign policy elites have talked about Turkey—championing its Western-oriented foreign policy—the relationship was always an exercise in frustration. There were major differences between the two countries over U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s decision to withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey after the Cuban missiles crisis, the Turkish invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus in 1974 that resulted in an American arms embargo, Ankara’s relations with Athens, the Armenian genocide, and Turkey’s position on the invasion of Iraq. Even during the early Obama years, U.S. officials suffered painful whiplash. A year after Obama’s appearance at the Turkish parliament, Ankara vetoed a UN Security Council resolution sanctioning Tehran; negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran (and Brazil); and enabled the infamous Freedom Flotilla that sought to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip and resulted in the deaths of nine people aboard the Turkish-flagged ferry, the Mavi Marmara.

A Kurdish member of the Self-Defense Forces stands near the Syrian-Turkish border in the Syrian city of al-Derbasiyah, February 9, 2016.
A Kurdish member of the Self-Defense Forces stands near the Syrian-Turkish border in the Syrian city of al-Derbasiyah, February 9, 2016.
Rodi Said / Reuters
After Obama and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then Turkish prime minister and is now president, cleared the air in a private meeting at the G-20 summit in June 2010, things seemed back on track. The new “golden age” in relations culminated with the Arab Spring. Despite Ankara’s close ties to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, the Obama administration (like the entire U.S. foreign policy elite) regarded Turkey as a model for the Arab world and looked to the Turks to help facilitate soft landings and transitions to democracy.

Yet it was also the Arab Spring, specifically the uprising in Syria and its intersection with Turkish domestic politics, that has renewed tension in U.S.–Turkish relations. The protests that began in March 2011 in the southern Syrian town of Deraa seemed a perfect opportunity for Ankara to demonstrate its leadership in the Middle East. Erdogan could draw on his investment of time and political capital in his relationship with Assad over the previous five years (to a skeptical Bush administration and a more receptive Obama administration, Erdogan had signaled that he was working to pull Damascus away from Tehran) to influence the Syrian leader’s behavior.

When the Syrian security forces responded to the uprising in Deraa with a heavy hand, the Turkish foreign minister traveled to Damascus to counsel caution and reform. Assad apparently agreed, but nevertheless continued his efforts to repress the revolt. Further Turkish entreaties were rebuffed in favor of Iranian advice. After large numbers of refugees began streaming across the Turkish border seeking safety from the Syrian military and the regime’s death squads, Ankara gave up on its one-time ally. It was a principled position, but Erdogan was still unwilling to lead the effort to oust the dictator, preferring instead to encourage, cajole, and even shame the United States into another conflict in the Middle East—to no avail.

The Turks, who had front row seats as one U.S. president invaded Iraq on the flimsiest of grounds, were now deeply frustrated that another U.S. president, who at least had the moral justification to bring down the Syrian regime, refused to act. They were left to confront the irony of their situation: Washington’s action in Iraq and its inaction in Syria both threatened Turkish national security. When the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts collided in the summer of 2014 in the form of Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s march through Mosul, the United States and Turkey found themselves pursuing different goals and interests in response.

Indulging in Turkey’s conflicting aims and interests will only set back the United States.
For the Turks, the American strategy to “degrade and defeat” ISIS was daft because it did not target the Syrian regime, which, for Ankara, is the root of the problem. Erdogan also refused to sign up for Obama’s anti-ISIS coalition because he feared that the group would retaliate, spilling innocent Turkish blood if he did. Most important was how Turkey’s perception of the threat evolved as Syria’s uprising became a civil war, a conflict among regional proxies, the site of a great power showdown, and a zone of unfettered extremism. The violence of all of these colliding battles shattered Syria beyond recognition. The Turks understood that as Syria fragmented, the country’s Kurds would try to carve out an independent entity across a stretch of territory that abuts Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. The emergence of Western Kurdistan, or “Rojava,” is a development that Turkish leaders insist Ankara cannot countenance.


The struggle between Turkish and Kurdish nationalism is and always has been the central drama of Turkey’s politics. When Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, they sought to temper this conflict by de-emphasizing “Turkishness” as a marker of identity, stressing instead Islam, which the vast majority of Turkish citizens share; through greater investment in the predominantly Kurdish southeast; and through negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to end the violent conflict that the group had waged against Turkey since 1984. Each of these efforts failed, thwarted by the politics of irreconcilable nationalism on both sides.

And when Turkish tanks stood silent sentry on a bluff overlooking the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani during the summer and fall of 2014 as ISIS lay siege to the area, Turkey’s Kurds were enraged. At that moment Erdogan’s interests coincided with those of Baghdadi. The destruction of Syrian Kurds would foreclose the possibility that Rojava would become reality, protecting the Turkish leader’s nationalist flank as he looked toward parliamentary elections. Then there was the intensification of violence between the Turkish state and the PKK. Negotiations had been deteriorating for some time likely leading to renewed violence, although the proximate cause for the outbreak of fighting that began in mid-2015 was the assassination of two Turkish police officers as they slept in Ceylanpinar near the Syrian border. No matter, however, since Erdogan was able to leverage the new round of violence to his political advantage in the aforementioned elections.

A Syrian girl walks as they wait to cross into Syria at Oncupinar border crossing in the southeastern city of Kilis, Turkey, February 11, 2016.
A Syrian girl walks as they wait to cross into Syria at Oncupinar border crossing in the southeastern city of Kilis, Turkey, February 11, 2016.
Osman Orsal / Reuters
What, a reasonable reader might ask, does this complicated situation have to do with the United States? Almost everything. When Turkey signaled its profound reluctance at becoming a member of the anti-ISIS coalition in the summer of 2014, Washington went looking for other allies on the ground to preclude the deployment of large numbers of U.S. troops to Iraq and possibly Syria. The Obama administration found partners in some units of Iraq’s military, the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, and Syrian Kurdish fighters called the People’s Protection Units, known commonly by their Kurdish acronym, YPG.

It turns out that, according to U.S. officials, the YPG is an effective force against ISIS and, as a result, U.S. military commanders have increasingly coordinated with the groups’ fighters. Yet the YPG exists in part because the PKK help set it up after the Syrian uprising became militarized and the two groups clearly coordinate. This has made life difficult for the U.S. policymakers who have worked hard to reaffirm that Turkey has a right to defend itself against PKK terrorism, while maintaining the idea that the YPG and PKK are distinct. This notion, which only U.S. officials seem to believe, allows them to continue working with the YPG against ISIS.

Washington’s hairsplitting is an affront to Ankara, which fears that the YPG—with the help of the PKK and the U.S. military—will succeed in carving Rojava out of Syria, leaving what from Turkey’s perspective, is a terrorist state on its border that has designs on its own territory. So now the Turkish military is shelling the YPG in Syria, while the YPG continues to coordinate with the United States and Russia, leading Turkish officials to conclude that Washington and Moscow are colluding against Ankara. No doubt for many Turks who know the history of their country well, current events must seem eerily familiar to the post-World War I period when great powers sought to dismember Anatolia.

Ankara wants Washington to choose between Turkey and the YPG (and, by extension, the PKK), but few in Washington want to deal seriously with the implications of Syria’s disintegration for U.S.–Turkey relations and new U.S. ties with Syrian Kurds. History suggests that faced with a choice between the Kurds—a loosely defined nation spread across four countries without one of their own—and Turkey, a powerful country that sits at the center of many of the United States’ most pressing foreign policy concerns, U.S. officials will choose the latter. The world has turned, however. Turkey is an ally, but hardly the indispensable partner that its legend suggests. It is true that after a year of difficult negotiations, Ankara granted the United States permission to use its airfields to attack ISIS, but in the current crisis Turkey has proven itself to be a reluctant, unreliable, and recalcitrant ally. The Turks share Washington’s interests in broad terms—seeing Assad go and destroying ISIS—but they simply do not agree with the U.S. strategy to realize these goals. As a result, it is time to place a bet on the Kurds beyond what Washington has done. This is not because of the many mythologies related to Kurds—that they are democrats, pro-West, secular, and underdogs—but rather because they exists in relatively large numbers in places—Syria and Iraq—that are fragmenting and where Washington needs allies in the fight against ISIS.

Indulging in Turkey’s conflicting aims and interests will only set back the United States. The PKK is a terrorist organization, but, unlike ISIS, one can imagine a resolution to their violent conflict with the Turkish state, as Erdogan did when he undertook negotiations with the group in 2013. The United States has, whether it intended to or not, midwifed Rojava and for that matter, Iraqi Kurdistan. And it cannot continue to enlist the Kurds as bulwarks of U.S. regional interests while suppressing their desires for independence. If the Kurds of Syria (and Iraq) want to be independent, Washington should not stop them.

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  • STEVEN A. COOK is the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book Thwarted Dreams: Violence and Authoritarianism in the New Middle East will be published by Oxford University Press.
  • More By Steven A. Cook