Michael Nesbitt is an assistant professor in the faculty of law at the University of Calgary.
Last week, Turkey finally – and very reluctantly – capitulated to Western pressure to use its military force against Islamic State targets along its border with Iraq and Syria. It was a decision three years in the making, and came only after a serious suicide attack occurred inside Turkish borders.
Except instead of focusing on IS targets, it is being reported that Turkey has instead been pinpointing its attacks on Kurdish targets along the Iraq-Turkey border.
Why would Turkey take this turn, and can it be trusted to co-operate with Western interests, which are clearly to focus on IS targets?
To answer this question, it's important to recognize that Turkey's actions are perfectly consistent with its approach to the conflict in Syria and now Iraq since 2012. It didn't cave in to Western pleas last week; it simply readjusted its tactics in a changing regional landscape.
Turkey has long seen the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and the PKK – the Kurdish independence movement in Turkey – as its primary enemies. Seen in this light, the birth of IS in Syria was for Turkey not so much the rise of an imminent threat but of an unwitting ally in Turkey's nascent battle against the al-Assad regime and the Kurdish populations that inhabit the eastern part of the Syria-Turkish border. Turkey's response was thus to let the battle play out between the three competing groups while it asked the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to protect its border with Syria – which NATO did with the now-installed Patriot missiles. Turkey would then deal with the upstart IS threat, if necessary, when the "real" dual threats of the Kurds and the al-Assad regime were severely weakened or eliminated.
But Turkey's hand was forced last week not just by the recent suicide attack within its territory, but by the realization that Mr. al-Assad and the Kurds had proved much more resilient than virtually anyone expected. Syria's Kurds, in particular, have looked like the one regional group capable of holding territory in the face of the Islamic State and in so doing have become increasingly unified. And so Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has chosen to finally take action, only that action has not surprisingly focused first on Turkey's "primary threat" – the Kurds – and second on the IS. Of course, betraying its interests, Turkey continues to advocate that coalition air strikes target the al-Assad regime as well as IS targets in Syria.
So will Turkey now change its course because the West is feeling threatened by the Islamic State? Not likely. These are old animosities and nowhere has the adage "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" been truer than the Middle East. The real question for the West should not be whether we can expect some complete policy realignment by Turkey, but rather what we can expect in the region if the current trajectory holds.
The answer for the West is not pretty and is in many ways contingent on what happens to the oft-ignored Kurds. If Turkey eliminates or severely weakens them, then the West has lost the one regional group that has held strong against the Islamic State. There will also be calls of genocide and war crimes – crimes that the West will be implicated in if Turkey is allowed to weaken the ethnic Kurds to the point that IS can finish the grisly task.
At some point, we might also have to start questioning the stability of the borders in the region. The three Kurdish groups – the PKK in Turkey, the PYD in Syria, and Barzani's KDP in Iraq – are currently fairly disparate, but a sustained attack on the Kurdish people could change that, something Turkey should be concerned with as well. It is thus vital that the West not play down these attacks on the Kurds.
If Turkey can be persuaded to back off the Kurds – perhaps after the formation of the "safe zone" that the United States and Turkey are discussing for the border – and Syria's Kurds hold strong, at some point we will have to ask when a de facto state has been formed. Kurdish independence in Syria is not as far off as some would say. Contagion to Turkey and Iraq would thus become a real concern: The mere threat of partitioning these fragile boundaries would probably coincide with violence and ugly ethnic tensions.
Whatever the result, the West should not count on Turkey to be of much assistance. The war will continue to be waged, particularly in Syria, with the situation becoming more complex, not less. And the Kurds, oft-overlooked, may have a vital role to play, whatever the outcome.