Eradicating ISIL without getting entangled in Turkish-Kurdish fight

Eradicating ISIL without getting entangled in Turkish-Kurdish fight

“If you are going to be hanged, be hanged with an English rope,” is a famous Turkish saying. Anything that has the act of hanging cannot really imply something positive, but this saying has a positive connotation in reference to the British. 

By contrast, you can also very often hear many Turks utter the expression “Don’t descend the well with an English rope.”

These two expressions are demonstrative of the Turks’ rather problematic relations with the British, as they cannot forget Great Britain’s role in World War I. 

Yet Great Britain has remained one of Turkey’s best allies in the recent past, being one of the few countries that has succeeded in deciphering Turkey’s codes. It is no coincidence that British diplomats in Ankara were extremely quick to analyze the developments in Turkey on the night of July 15, 2016 and convinced Theresa May’s government, which was on its first week in office, to act fast in showing support and solidarity to the Turkish government. British Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Alan Duncan’s visit to Turkey only a few days after the coup and the fact that no other ministerial visit from the West followed it for at least a month seems to have gained considerable credit to London in the eyes of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. 

It is again no coincidence that Theresa May came to Turkey right after her visit to Washington last week, becoming the first foreign leader to meet the U.S.’s new and controversial president Donald Trump. As expected, how to move in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is one of Trump’s priorities, was one of the important topics on May’s agenda in Washington. It appears that May tried to explain to Trump the complexities of the situation and convey the message of not rushing into quick decisions. While doing that, it seems she tried to reflect on Turkey’s sensitivities by underlining that jumping to the conclusion of supporting the Syrian Kurds to be the easiest way to fight ISIL would come at a cost in relations with Turkey. 

Ankara remains adamant in trying to convince Washington and other players in the region to ending the previous U.S. administration’s policy of relying on Syrian Kurds; namely the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is the Syrian wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) - a fact no longer contested in the international community.

Turkey’s Western allies seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they are happy to find a fighting force in the YPG against ISIL; that way they avoid having their boots on the ground. And frankly, they could not care less whether they are good Kurds or bad Kurds, as long as they fight the bad “radical Islamists.”

On the other hand, they have to deal with Turkey’s nuisance value. Any strategy to defeat ISIL devoid of Turkey’s support is doomed to fail. Yet although some of the Western powers admit the Turkish army is doing a “decent job” in difficult circumstances in Syria, which the military options put on the table by Ankara to take ISIL stronghold Raqqa does not appear credible to these same powers. 

Yet European powers are aware of the negative consequences of letting the Kurds take over the predominantly Sunni town Raqqa. Whether this view is shared by Trump’s advisers is not yet known. 

Eradicating ISIL without antagonizing the Turkish government and Kurdish fighters remains a crucial challenge, not only in front of Trump, but also to other Western powers with vested interest in the region. A subtle diplomacy is required to keep Turks on board without totally abandoning the Kurdish fighters, but at the same time making sure the latter know their limits. Yet subtle diplomacy and Trump stand as an oxymoron.