US-Turkish Bilateral Cooperation as a Means to Defeat ISIS

by Chris Weschler, ’17

On November 16th, a video depicting the beheading of an Islamic State hostage surfaced on the Internet. Within minutes, news outlets in the United States and abroad were reporting on the grisly murder of Peter Kassig, a 26 year old aid worker and recent convert to Islam. In typical fashion, Obama released a statement a few hours later condemning the act as “pure evil.” It is one many publicly released assassinations of Westerners by the surging Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, colloquially known as “ISIS.” Leaders of the radical Sunni Muslim group branded the attack as a response to the United States’ use of air support. In Washington, Obama seeks a solution. The rest of his presidency depends on how he handles ISIS—a growing threat to regional stability in the Middle East. In order to effectively contain ISIS, The U.S. has to strengthen its relationship with the nearest regional power to Iraq and Syria and NATO ally—Turkey.

In these trying times, the U.S. should better relations with Turkey to eliminate ISIS. The time has come for our “ally” to honor their commitment. Turkey however refused to join a U.S.-backed coalition for airstrikes against ISIS. Their hesitation seems reasonable given U.S.-Turkish relations.

Turkey could just as easily benefit from inaction—at least for now. Turkey knows full well that a lack of involvement means that the U.S. will once again shoulder the burden. And, as it stands, Turkey has no credible fear of ISIS crossing their borders as long as Kurdish Peshmerga forces are present in Kobane. They can turn a blind eye to the conflict because ISIS militants operating in Syria and Iraq will pose no threat to Turkish domestic affairs, especially if they hold off long enough for the U.S. to eventually move in with more than just air support. Why would Turkey want to militarily commit to the conflict when they could exploit the free-ridership that comes with American allegiance, despite some resentment for American attitudes toward Turkey?

The above argument is not sufficient enough for Turkey to not be involved in the fight againt ISIS. In these trying times, Turkey and the U.S. need to cooperate. Turkey needs to join U.S. coalition forces aimed at fighting ISIS. The reality is ISIS fighters are at the Turkish-Syrian border clashing with Kurds that do not have the support of the Turkish government. Turkey continues to not bat an eyelash despite the fact that ISIS militants are at their back doorstep. In addition, more than 170,000 Syrian refugees have flooded into Turkey in the wake of the latest ISIS offensive in Northern Syria. Turkish inaction has proven futile—both for its own interests and those of the U.S.. The time has come for the U.S. and Turkey to act bilaterally to curb ISIS—not only by points of mutual interest, but abroad—in the rest of Syria and Iraq, too.

In order for that to happen, the U.S. has some patchwork regarding its relationship with Turkey. It’s no secret that relations between President Obama and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years have been dotted by cold spots. The two still regard each other as allies, but their relationship is fickle and dependent on the state of the world. Obama’s sentiments about Erdogan have been colored in part by his inability to limit anti-American rhetoric coming out of Turkey and  bashing of Israel, a notorious U.S. ally. Obama has also criticized Erdogan’s political expertise, claiming he relies too much on charisma rather than political adept when called for. Another belief about Erdogan in Washington is that he and his advisers promote a “neo-Ottoman” agenda that disenfranchises other ethnic groups besides Sunni Muslims in Turkey, like the Kurds, ironically the very group of people preventing ISIS from crossing into Turkey. Additionally, this past September, the Obama Administration came under fire in the midst of NSA spying scandals conducted on Germany and Turkey, prompting outrage. If Washington seeks the aid of Ankara, they must begin mending relations. If the US seeks the aid of Turkey in deposing ISIS, they must mend relations with Turkey.

Despite Erdogan’s outlook vis a vis Israel and the Kurds, the Obama Administration has a vested interest in swallowing its pride and acting with more legitimacy. Spying on an ally by way of the NSA is clearly a hindrance to trust in U.S.-Turkish relations. Not only that, but it is unbecoming of the  U.S., arguably a  hegemon, to act contrarily to norms they hold other states to.

If Washington and Ankara can bury the hatchet, the threat of a surging Islamic State seems more containable than by U.S. means alone. With relations centered on interstate trust, the U.S. and Turkey can proceed with bilateral action moving forward and choke ISIS into submission.. A commitment from Turkey militarily and economically totaling even a small proportion of U.S. contributions would prove significant. Turkey has the strategic means to limit ISIS—militarily, financially, and perhaps, most importantly, by means of their location. Coupled with Turkish commitment and deeper involvement of Kurdish forces, the U.S. doesn’t have to stand alone to shoulder the weight of ISIS—a task that seems singlehandedly impossible in the age of asymmetric warfare.