As ISIS forces descend on the Kurdish city of Kobani, the Obama White House is reportedly "furious" at the refusal of the Turkish military to intervene. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, has insisted that the United States must provide greater assistance to the Free Syrian Army and must declare a no-fly zone over Syria for the air force of the Asssad regime before Turkey will commit troops to the conflict. Turkey obviously has ulterior motives for refusing aid to the Kurds, but the self-righteous posture of the Obama administration is nonetheless unfounded and ill-conceived.
To any informed political observer, President Erdogan's demand for a no-fly zone over Syria is entirely predictable. One cannot pretend that fighting ISIS does not implicate oneself in the Syrian civil war- they are not mutually alienable endeavors. If the U.S.-led coalition attacks ISIS without taking steps against the Assad regime, it will (despite any rhetorical denials) be intervening in favor of an Iranian-backed dictatorship that has ruthlessly poisoned its own people. No one can be surprised that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man whose career has been built on the claim of being a champion of Sunni Islam, is seeking to avoid this kind of political morass. Anyone shocked by Erdogan's refusal to appear a pawn of U.S. policy and a traitor to the Sunni cause is either hopelessly naive, willfully ignorant, or both at once.
Erdogan's reticence, moreover, has good strategic basis beyond the surface politics of the situation. As I have written in previous posts, the pursuit of a campaign against
ISIS without concomitant action against the Assad regime is hopelessly
impractical. President Obama has admitted as much in his stance toward
the Iraqi government. If, as Obama has insisted, the formation of a
government more inclusive of Sunnis is crucial to eroding the political
support of ISIS in Iraq, a nation which is only twenty percent Sunni,
how can the case be any different in Syria, where Sunnis make up three
quarters of the population? As long as the Assad regime seems secure, a
critical portion of the Syrian population will give at least tacit to
support to ISIS. That support will only flee ISIS once the Assad regime
is clearly on the way out. President Erdogan thus does not want to commit ground forces to a struggle that, absent the necessary strategic commitments, is doomed to indefinite stalemate.
If America genuinely wants to see the demise of ISIS it can not remain myopically focused on the group as a purely tactical challenge. We helped create the problem, which has complex social and political roots, and we can not bully the people of the Middle East into cleaning it up on our terms and our terms alone. We have to commit to a more global resolution of the tensions and conflicts that are destabilizing the region, and we must allow the groups and agents that share our interests to pursue their own agendas within the scope of what is fair and politically sustainable. Instead of rolling our eyes and mocking leaders like President Erdogan, we should be listening, weighing the merits of his position, and prepared to negotiate.