Has Turkey Joined the Anti-ISIS Coalition to Counter the Kurds?

Syrian Kurds wait near Mursitpinar border crossing to return to their homes in the Syrian city of Kobani, on the Turkish-Syrian border Murad Sezer/Reuters

After a long period of hesitation, a bit of American arm-twisting and a fierce war fast closing in on its borders with Syria and Iraq, Turkey has finally joined the U.S.-led coalition against the extremists of the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS.

Or has it?

Turkey's goals in joining the fight differ from what American officials say they are. In some cases, the Turkish aims may even create friction with other essential components of the coalition, pushing the U.S. to finesse those differences or make stark choices.

The parliament in Ankara voted on October 2 on a motion, pressed by the new president (and longtime prime minister before that), Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that authorizes the government to order military incursions into Syria and Iraq. The measure would also allow Turkey's allies to operate from Turkish soil and use its military bases.

Erdogan easily got his way. The 298–98 vote was warmly welcomed by Washington, which for weeks had been coaxing Turkey to join the widening coalition against ISIS as Erdogan remained conspicuously aloof from the U.S.'s efforts. While President Barack Obama announced his intention to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS, the Turkish authorities continued to allow Islamists from the rest of the world to freely cross the Turkish border to join forces with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. And the Turkish authorities seemed happy to turn a blind eye as oil from areas captured by ISIS was smuggled through Turkey to be sold for hard cash to fund their reign of terror.

Now Turkey, which shares the longest borders with Iraq and Syria, and which has the second largest army of all the NATO members, says it is in. But the Kurds, who live in the areas ISIS contests, suspect that beyond fighting ISIS—who are, like the Turks, Sunni Islamists—Erdogan's hidden aim is to stem the growing importance of Kurdish fighters and politicians in the coalition.

The Kurds have a point. Close scrutiny of last week's legislation shows that Turkey's reason for joining the war may be as much to suppress Kurdish separatists as to destroy ISIS. "The terrorist group Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) still exists in northern Iraq," the new law says, before describing "the significant increase in the number of other terrorist elements in Syria, and the threat posed by them in Iraq"—a clear reference to ISIS—as "also alarming." (My italics.)

The PKK is not only listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey but by the U.S. and the European Union, too. Nevertheless, it has emerged as an important asset in the allied fight against ISIS. Its members have long trained as an effective fighting force and some military analysts believe they are as good as if not better than any fighters in the region, including the well-disciplined Peshmerga, the northern Iraqi Kurdish militias that are backed and armed by the U.S. and European countries.

Turkey is anxious that the fight against ISIS will help the PKK and its ultimate aim: to establish a separate Kurdistan. "Turkey is concerned about the diplomatic and military boost the PKK received due to its effective fight against ISIS," says Gonul Tol, director of the Washington, D.C.–based Middle East Institute's Center for Turkish Studies. "There has been a lot of talk in Western capitals about removing the PKK from the terror list. The arms the U.S. sent to Peshmerga reportedly ended up in the hands of the PKK and Ankara raised this issue with Washington on several occasions. That is why Ankara is framing its participation in the U.S.-led coalition as a decision that will mainly target PKK, along with ISIS."

Members of the anti-ISIS coalition are divided on what they are willing to offer in the fight against ISIS. While some are prepared to employ air strikes over Iraq, others—like the U.K.—are reluctant to use airpower over Syria. Some coalition members are happy to arm, equip or train fighters like the Peshmerga or moderate anti-regime fighters in Syria.

But, so far, like America, none of the coalition members are proposing they put "boots on the ground." In Iraq, that role is expected to be played by the Iraqi army and, perhaps in the future, some Iraqi Sunni militias. When it comes to ridding ISIS from Syria, Western powers are hoping to revive, train and supply moderate militias such as the Free Syrian Army.

And among the most prominent of those who fight in Iraq and are expected to carry the brunt of the ground war against ISIS in Syria are the Kurds. The PKK, a separatist Turkish organization, and its Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party, have already emerged as some of the most effective "boots on the ground" in this war.

While Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran have long been politically divided from each other, the new threats are serving to unite the disparate factions across national borders. "The PKK is heavily involved in the fight against ISIS," says Kani Xulam, a Washington, D.C.–based advocate of Kurdistan, who is affiliated with the United Kurdish Network. PKK fighters "are sharing quarters with the Peshmerga and other Kurdish factions. They are getting to know each other," he says. "Maybe this is a blessing in disguise, although under horrible circumstances."

Xulam has noticed an uptick in positive press coverage of the PKK, both in Europe and in the U.S. Nevertheless, he does not expect that such increased sympathy with the Kurdish cause will quickly translate into the PKK being removed from terrorist lists.

Even so, Turkey is extremely concerned about the growing influence of the Kurds. Before his victory in the presidential election in August, Erdogan had made approaches to Turkey's long-alienated Kurds, including starting negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader who has been held in a Turkish jail since 1999. As a result, Turkey's Kurdish parties ended up voting for Erdogan in his presidential bid. But on October 2, Turkish parliamentarians from the Kurdish parties voted against the war-authorizing measure, fearing it was aimed as much at Kurds as it was at ISIS.

When ISIS recently bombarded the Kurdish city of Kobani, just across the Turkish border in Syria, the Turkish army appeared in no hurry to intervene. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey would do "whatever we can" to help Kobani, but Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz quickly quashed Kurdish hopes that the army would cross the Syrian border anytime soon, telling reporters after the vote in parliament that it would be wrong to expect "imminent" military action by Turkish forces.

From his cell in a Turkish jail, Ocalan declared that if Turkey allows ISIS to massacre the Kurds in Kobani, he would put a swift end to the peace talks he had begun with Ankara. And if talks are officially severed, says Tol, relations between Ankara and Washington will be strained further, as U.S. arms to the Peshmerga will continue to flow and in many cases will likely end up being used by PKK fighters.

Although America eventually convinced Turkey to join the anti-ISIS coalition, the Turks have always been awkward allies when it comes to ridding the Middle East of murderous tyrants. In 2002, the Turkish parliament refused the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein permission to use Turkish bases on Turkish soil, severely complicating America's planned invasion of Iraq.

According to the recent vote in the Turkish parliament, U.S. and other NATO aircraft may be allowed to fly in and out of Turkey's military air base in Incirlik, which is much closer to ISIS locations than the bases currently used by the allies in the gulf and in Jordan.

But Turkish officials now say that Incirlik can only be used to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria, where the Syrian government's warplanes are currently free to bomb Syrian rebels. This exposes another key difference between the war aims of Washington and Ankara: While Obama is concentrating on the defeat of ISIS, Erdogan's priority is to end the rule of President Bashar Assad in Syria.

This week, Obama's envoy to the global anti-ISIS coalition, General John Allen, and his deputy, Brett McGurk, were scheduled to visit Ankara to coordinate the U.S.'s efforts with their new war ally. They face a difficult balancing act, keeping Turkey on board as a key coalition member while reassuring the Kurds, who will provide the priceless foot soldiers in the war on ISIS, that, despite the Turkish involvement, they should also stay in the coalition.

That very round circle is looking increasingly hard to square.

Follow Benny Avni on Twitter: @bennyavni