A new report from The Henry Jackson Society, Turkey and the West in Syria: Course Correction, argues that Western policy towards Turkey must change in light of the nature of Turkish involvement in Syria. Having initially attempted to improve relations with its neighbors, Turkey has been drawn deeper into the war. Beginning by supporting the opposition’s defence of populations against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Turkey has redirected significant resources to contain the influence of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), whose Syrian affiliate has become the primary ground ally of the U.S.-led Coalition against the Islamic State (IS).
Turkey’s involvement has had contradictory results: it has been a lifeline to the mainstream opposition but also a boost to Islamists; it has created rifts between al-Qaeda and the mainstream rebellion, whilst empowering groups that enable al-Qaeda; it has sustained the most effective anti-IS rebel groups, and now fights IS directly, yet Turkey’s open-border policy allowed tens of thousands of foreign jihadists to join IS.
The Turkish confrontation with the PKK inside Syria might yet be to IS’s benefit, while the crackdown after Turkey’s attempted coup has seen a number of key military officials with whom the West was working against IS removed. The paper’s key recommendations include:
- The West should work with Turkey to delineate a role for the PKK in Syria which is acceptable to all parties. If Turkey is satisfied that PKK activity will be appropriately constrained then all forces can focus on IS.
- Turkey must be persuaded to crack down on the operations of Islamist groups in its territory, notably al-Qaeda, and reduce its support to similar groups in Syria.
- Alternative locations for military bases must be explored, including Cyprus and Iraqi Kurdistan as, if Western relations with Turkey continue to sour, Coalition forces could be evicted from their territory. That Ankara could even use this threat as leverage is dangerous.
Kyle Orton, Research Fellow and report author, said;
“Turkey is a NATO partner and one of the most important foreign states involved in Syria. The increasing distance between Turkey and its Western Allies is a negative development – and especially negative with regards to the shared aim of stabilising Syria and defeating terrorism.
Turkey has influence in Syria that can be exerted in a way congruent with the West’s interests. This requires a compromise. Turkey must cease some of the activities it has been undertaking, but there are alterations in Western policy needed to bring all sides onto the same page.”