Turkey-U.S. Cooperation Against the "Islamic State": A Unique Dynamic?
Jim Zanotti, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs (email@example.com, 7-1441)
October 21, 2014 (IN10164)
U.S. strategic objectives regarding cooperation with Turkey, a NATO member and Sunni Muslimmajority country, in countering the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Syria and Iraq
appear to include
Avoiding attacks on or the destabilization of Turkey;
Minimizing the use of Turkish territory by extremists; and
Using Turkish territory and airspace and/or partnering with Turkish forces for military purposes
and to further strengthen and diversify Sunni support within the anti-IS coalition.
For background information, see CRS Report R41368, Turkey: Background and U.S. Relations , by Jim
Following the September 20, 2014, release by IS of 49 hostages associated with the Turkish consulate
in Mosul, Iraq, Turkish leaders have indicated willingness to expand the nature of Turkey's participation
in the anti-IS coalition beyond the measures it reportedly began taking while the hostages were still in
IS hands. These measures include curbing fighters' access to Syria and aiding humanitarian and
logistical efforts. Turkey's openness to expanding its role possibly stems at least in part from
calculations about what its coalition partners may demand in order to actively include Turkey in shaping
developments in an area it views as crucially important. International concerns surrounding the fate of
the IS-besieged, Kurdish-populated town of Kobane, Syria (also known as Ayn al Arab), are highlighting
broader questions about whether, how, and under what conditions Turkey might become more
Turkey's parliament voted on October 2, 2014, to approve potential military operations in Syria and Iraq
launched from Turkey by Turkish or foreign forces. On October 12, U.S. National Security Advisor
Susan Rice stated that Turkey had agreed to allow the use of its territory by coalition forces to train
"moderate Syrian opposition forces" and to "engage in activities inside of Iraq and Syria." In apparent
response to media speculation regarding whether such activities might include coalition use of Turkey's
Incirlik air base for airstrikes in Syria or Iraq, Turkish officials subsequently stated that the use of
Incirlik has not been agreed upon and that negotiations on the matter were ongoing.
Sources: Various. See CRS Report R41368, Turkey: Background and U.S.
Relations , by Jim Zanotti.
Situation and Policy Assessment
A complicated array of considerations—including parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2015—
affects Turkish calculations. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and 2012, Turkey, which
shares a long border with Syria (more than 500 miles), has sought to minimize its security threats
while also influencing regional outcomes. Stalemate and protracted conflict in Syria have exposed
Turkey to increasing risks related to the long-term status of the approximately 1.5 million Syrian
refugees in Turkey as well as to criticisms that Turkey has allowed extremists, including foreign
fighters, to transit or seek safe haven in Turkish territory or use it as a market for smuggled oil.
Other factors include
The Kurdish Issue and Sectarian Concerns. Despite rhetoric promising to do "whatever we
can" to prevent an IS takeover of Kobane and reportedly allowing around 200,000 (mostly
Kurdish) people from the Kobane area to take refuge over the border, Turkish leaders have
shown reluctance to allow fighters or weaponry to flow to Syrian Kurds (particularly the
Democratic Union Party or PYD/YPG) without statements or actions signifying unambiguous PYD
opposition to Asad. The Turkish government might fear potentially negative reactions by Sunni
Turks, who might characterize efforts to counter Sunni influence (Islamic State) in Syria as
benefitting the Alawite-dominated and Iran-allied Asad regime.
Assisting the PYD would also have domestic sensitivity because of likely concerns about bolstering
Turkey's longtime Kurdish adversary, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK, of which the PYD is
generally viewed as an affiliate or offshoot). Kurdish unrest intensified throughout Turkey in early
October, suggesting that Turkish efforts to prevent military assistance to Kobane presents its own
risks. After reported Kurdish militant attacks against Turkish military outposts, Turkey launched
airstrikes against PKK positions on October 13, leading to concerns about the future of ongoing
efforts by the Turkish government and the PKK to reach a long-term political accommodation.
Reports indicate that Turkish officials began on October 20 to allow Kurdish fighters affiliated with
Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to transit Turkish territory into Kobane to assist PYD
forces against IS, though Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has voiced opposition to PYD
control over territory. It is unclear how the new fighters might work with the PYD, as the KRG's
priorities are generally distinct from the PKK and PYD, possibly underscoring broader KRG-PKK
rivalry for leadership and influence among Kurds throughout the region. Earlier in October,
possibly due to KRG urgings, the U.S. military had stepped up airstrikes on IS positions in and
near Kobane. U.S. officials, after notifying Turkey on October 19, ordered the air drop of KRGsupplied weapons, ammunition, and medical supplies (without overflying Turkey) to Syrian Kurds
defending Kobane—a measure described by Secretary of State John Kerry as "not a shift in
policy" but "a crisis moment, an emergency." Though the United States (as well as the European
Union) designates the PKK as a terrorist organization, the State Department says that "the PYD is
a different group than the PKK legally, under United States law."
Self-Defense and NATO. Although Turkey has amassed ground forces at the border, its leaders
may be reluctant to make a unilateral military incursion into Syria against IS, even if they could
claim self-defense. They probably are concerned about IS reprisals, including possible sleeper
cells. Additionally, if Turkey can be portrayed as an aggressor party, other NATO member states
might be less inclined to consider themselves obligated to respond to a Turkish invocation of the
collective self-defense guarantee (under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty) following attacks
against Turkish territory.
U.S. Commitment—Possible "Safe Zones" and Anti-Asad Efforts. Turkey—along with the
United States and a number of other countries—has advocated Asad's ouster since late 2011.
Turkey may be cautious about taking on the risks of military action without a larger sense of the
nature and level of U.S. commitment to that goal and to other key Turkish concerns. Turkish
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted that greater Turkish participation in the anti-IS
coalition can take place only if "safe zones" are established in northern Syria—preferably with the
assistance of air power from the United States—and if train-and-equip efforts against Asad are
Though some U.S. officials appear to be open to considering the idea of safe zones, which may
share historical parallels with the zone created in northern Iraq in 1991, as of early October the
concept was reportedly not being actively considered by military planners. Questions exist
regarding for what purposes such zones would be used; their possible territorial scope and
political/legal mandate; and the extent to which U.S., Turkish, and/or other forces would have the
capacity and will to establish and patrol them. Would such zones make eventual conflict with
Asad and his supporters more or less likely, and what effects might such zones have on broader
regional, ethnic, and sectarian dynamics?