Turkey Will Pay for Abandoning the Kurds

Not a lost cause.

In blocking the resupply of the Kurdish fighters who are trying desperately to hold off a siege by Islamic State in Kobani, Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is making a decision that may haunt Turkey for years to come.

This is not just about Turkey's failure to join the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State. It also threatens Turkey's fragile truce with its Kurdish minority, many of whom are growing impatient with the sight of Turkish soldiers watching, from their side of the border, as Islamic State attacks Kobani.

On Tuesday, Kurdish protests across Turkey led to clashes with police, Turkish nationalists and supporters of Islamic State -- killing as many as 15 people. In response, the Turkish military imposed curfews reminiscent of the bad old decades after 1984, when Turkey battled insurgents from the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK. Their year-old cease-fire is now in jeopardy.

When pressed to say why Turkey wasn't helping the PKK-affiliated fighters in Kobani, Erdogan said: "For us, the PKK is the same as ISIL. It is wrong to consider them as different from each other."

To begin with, this statement is simply untrue. While the PKK has carried out terrorist attacks in Turkey, it has never beheaded captives, engaged in genocide against civilians of different creeds or systematically raped women. The PKK doesn't want to create a caliphate across the Middle East and convert or kill all non-Kurds within it. What the PKK wants most is greater political autonomy for Kurds in eastern Turkey -- a negotiable demand.

Even if it worked to Erdogan's political advantage by tapping into Turkish nationalist sentiment, a return to war with the PKK would be destructive -- to the country and the wider region. Refusing to let Kurds resupply their kin through Turkish territory also makes Erdogan appear complicit in the rise of Islamic State.

Nevertheless, he is taking as tough a position with the U.S. as he is with Syria's Kurds, refusing to join the military coalition against Islamic State until the U.S. agrees to broaden its goals to include toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He also wants the coalition to enforce a no-fly zone and a (Turkish-dominated) buffer area in northern Syria from which to organize the attack on Assad.

This strategy would provide capable ground troops to follow up on the U.S. coalition's airstrikes -- so it is worth discussion. But negotiations should take place after Turkey joins the coalition. By essentially holding the coalition ransom to his demands, Erdogan is making its Arab members vulnerable to criticism at home. Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates also want to see Assad gone, after all. But they have accepted the "Islamic State first" approach, and at some domestic political risk.

Ultimately, Erdogan's stance will also strain Turkey's most important security alliances, which are with the U.S. and NATO. Turkey is denying its allies use of the U.S. airbase at Incirlik, just 100 miles from the Syrian border.

The fall of Kobani will not, as many say, prove that airstrikes against Islamic State can't work -- only that they can't work without Turkish cooperation. Kobani's defenders have been remarkably effective against a much larger and better armed opponent, and with access to arms and reinforcements, there is every reason to believe they could succeed.

--Editors: Marc Champion, Mary Duenwald.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net