Under president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has found common cause with a who’s who of autocrats and extremists: facilitating the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, spearheading normalization with Assad, and aligning Ankara’s domestic political dynamics and foreign policy interests more closely with those of Moscow as war rages in Ukraine.
The United States has expressed concern at each of these developments. But if Washington wants to move beyond concern and address Turkey’s destabilizing conduct, policymakers must start by looking in the mirror.
The driving force behind each of these moves was Turkey’s long-unresolved Kurdish question and the armed conflicts resulting from it. Decades of U.S. policy incentivizing absolutist military solutions to the Kurdish issue and disincentivizing political approaches created a perfect storm of conditions that facilitated these destabilizing impacts. To mitigate the damage, a new approach based on principles of democracy, international law and human rights is necessary.
How U.S. Policy Inflamed the Kurdish Conflict
Turkey’s alliance with the United States is based on a narrow set of security dynamics. For the first four decades of the partnership, these were largely related to U.S. efforts to counter the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
As a result, the U.S. reduces Turkey’s Kurdish question to a set of security problems (as defined by the Turkish national security establishment) related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency. U.S. policymakers falsely assume that military approaches are the preferred and only way to address these narrowly defined security problems.
This ahistorical framework leaves out the decades of anti-Kurdish repression and Kurdish uprisings predating the establishment of the PKK; the fact that most violence related to the conflict takes the form of clashes between Turkish and Kurdish armed forces and Turkish state violence against predominantly Kurdish civilians rather than acts of ‘terrorism’ by Kurdish groups; and the growing body of evidence that ‘terrorism’ frameworks impede the resolution of armed conflicts.
U.S. policies based on this framework have been a grab bag of Cold War and War on Terror abuses: training far-right coup plotters and human rights violators, downplaying atrocities to facilitate arms sales, backing shadowy campaigns of extrajudicial killings, and beyond.
Reams of evidence point to the negative impacts of these policies worldwide. Regardless of the supplier, “arms transfers to a state increase the likelihood of conflict breaking out; and, once begun, render conflicts longer and more deadly,” and autocratic regimes that receive foreign weapons are more likely to turn them on their own people.
One study of the top 30 recipients of American security assistance between 1992 and 2011 found that “increased U.S. aid was associated with elevated incidence of human rights abuses.” U.S. military training has been found to increase the ‘human capital’ or ‘soft power’ of security forces relative to civilian governments in recipient countries, doubling the risk of military coups.
The impact of such policies on Turkey was apparent to contemporary observers even without academic data. A 1983 op-ed in the Washington Post criticizing U.S. support for Turkey’s post-1980 military regime argued that “the trashing of human rights in Turkey today may well lead to an explosion tomorrow,” cautioning that the United States “habitually support[s] dictators and juntas who war on their own people and then, after years and years of it, incur a violent revolution.”
The PKK launched its war against the Turkish army just one year later. To this day, its leaders describe the repression Kurdish political prisoners faced after the coup as a major factor behind the decision to take up arms.
A 1999 report from the Federation of American Scientists warned that “an open-handed policy of providing arms without tough conditions on human rights or a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish conflict could embolden hardliners in the Turkish military who seek a military “final victory.””
More than 20 years—and hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. arms sales and security assistance—after that report was written, no military victory is in sight. Despite this, Turkish leaders continue to insist on one, and continue to benefit from U.S. backing in pursuit of it.
How Bad Actors Benefit
Through four decades of material support for absolutist military solutions to the Kurdish issue, U.S. policy has prolonged the Kurdish conflict and exacerbated the root causes of violence. While this approach may have lined the pockets of defense contractors, it has not brought any tangible benefits for most Americans.
In fact, three specific outcomes of these conditions provide structural advantages for U.S. adversaries. Entrenched fighting keeps Turkey’s skewed threat perceptions related to Kurdish civil, political and cultural rights alive; internationalizes the conflict in a manner that has made it a vector of instability beyond Turkey’s borders; and empowers the most nationalist and militarist individuals and entities in the state to the detriment of democratic institutions and civil society.
Anti-Kurdish Threat Perceptions
As long as Turkey pursues military solutions to its Kurdish question, it will view any state or non-state actor, regardless of ideology or geopolitical orientation, as less threatening than organized Kurdish communities—a threat perception shared by none of its allies. It will be particularly willing to work with notorious autocrats and extremists when they are willing to turn the brunt of their repressive force against Kurds.
Turkey facilitated the rise of ISIS in Syria because it hoped that the jihadist group would deal military blows to Kurdish forces, crush the nascent Autonomous Administration on its borders and either massacre or displace most of northeast Syria’s Kurds, removing the constituency for any kind of autonomous Kurdish entity in the future.
As a result, Turkey resisted cooperation with the U.S.-led counter-ISIS campaign. The United States was only forced to partner with the YPG in Syria after making consistent attempts to work with Turkey and finding Erdogan’s government unwilling to commit to the task because of its hostility to Kurdish autonomy.
Ankara is now pursuing normalization with the Syrian government for the same reason: it sees Damascus as the best partner for destroying not just the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but all Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) civil institutions. A full government takeover of the northeast would also drive many Kurds to flee in fear of a return to the persecution they faced prior to 2011—the same outcome Turkey hoped that an ISIS takeover of the region would achieve nearly a decade ago.
Expanding the Conflict
The internationalization of the conflict caused by Turkey’s indefinite pursuit of unsuccessful military solutions means that it now acts as a vector for instability in a growing number of countries and contexts.
The most obvious examples of this dynamic can be seen in Iraq and Syria, where most of the active fighting related to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict now takes place. Turkish military activity targeting Kurdish and Kurdish-linked groups it views as terrorists has led to civilian casualties and mass displacement in both countries, with destabilizing political impacts.
Even the European countries where many Kurds sought refuge from violence and political persecution are impacted. The Kurdish diaspora has not abandoned Kurdish identity or advocacy for the rights of Kurds who remain in Turkey—and so Turkey’s repressive policies have followed them. Erdogan’s government sees the Kurdish diaspora as enough of a threat to hold up NATO expansion during a land war in Europe over Sweden’s tolerance of Kurdish protests and refusal to extradite dissidents.
Empowering the Security Forces and the Far Right
Foreign backing for a military solution to the Kurdish question has helped Turkey’s security forces retain excessive power when compared to democratic institutions and civil society and ensured that right-wing nationalism remain disproportionately influential.
Turkey’s current constitution, which institutionalizes many of the country’s authoritarian shortcomings, was formulated by the U.S.-backed military regime in the aftermath of the 1980 coup. Turkey’s security forces could rely on consistent U.S. support in the form of aid and arms sales with no conditions for rights abuses, incentivizing continued conflict and anti-democratic actions.
Despite the role of U.S. and NATO support in propping them up, these actors tend to be most supportive of pulling Ankara away from its traditional Western orbit. This is in part because, since the resumption of conflict in 2015, they view actors like Russia and Iran as better partners for anti-Kurdish aggression, particularly in northeast Syria.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu share the dubious distinction of leading the structures that have benefitted the most from U.S. support for the war on the Kurds while being among Turkey’s top proponents of anti-Americanism and a closer Turkish-Russian security relationship.
Soylu’s rush to blame the United States and the Kurds for a deadly bombing in Istanbul whose perpetrators remain unknown may have been the first time that his views reached international audiences, but the comments were par for the course for his worldview. Akar’s Defense Ministry has spent the past several years doubling down on the acquisition of S-400 missile systems, an effort to move Turkey’s security apparatus closer to Russia. Both were sanctioned by the United States in 2019 for hindering the fight against ISIS and endangering civilian lives in Syria.
The ultra-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which Erdogan turned to as a coalition partner after abandoning peace talks with the PKK in the wake of electoral setbacks in June 2015, has called for Turkey to leave NATO and has been at the forefront of the escalating threats against Greece that are proving to be a major challenge to the US-Turkey relationship.
What could a new approach look like?
While the U.S. cannot undo the structural damage of decades of support for a military solution to Turkey’s Kurdish question overnight, it can adjust its current policies to better support peace and stability. This could be accomplished diplomatically, without the use of force. It would contribute to ending ongoing wars and preventing new ones from being started—helping the U.S. pivot away from endless conflicts in the Middle East.
An ideal approach would focus on preventing immediate escalation in ‘flashpoint’ areas like northeast Syria in the short term. It would respond to Turkish tactics that benefit actors like ISIS, Russia, and the Syrian state: including attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure that drive displacement and dissatisfaction with AANES and SDF capabilities and targeted killings of political and military leaders who led the fight against ISIS and now seek to protect their people from Ankara and Damascus.
From there, it would expand such efforts to promote broader political solutions that engage all relevant political and military actors and sustainably address the root causes of violence. To allow the U.S. to act as an honest broker, policies and programs that incentivize Turkey to pursue military solutions would have to come to an end. A confidence-building step would be dropping support for the sale of F-16s and tying opposition to the sale to the fact that these jets are used against Kurdish communities and Kurdish armed forces that beat ISIS.
Kurdish leaders have expressed interest in securing international support for a negotiated settlement to the conflict. The solutions they promote and that their supporters have already attempted to implement would resolve many of the geopolitical challenges caused by Turkey’s endless war.
In Turkey, the pro-Kurdish decentralization and democratization program would curb the power of the security forces and the nationalist right. An end to armed conflict and a negotiated settlement would end Turkey’s military presence in Iraq and Syria and the anti-Kurdish threat perceptions that justify it. In Syria, the negotiated settlement to the conflict sought by the AANES and SDF would preserve the highest degree of autonomy possible for the northeast and guarantees minority rights—providing the best chance of preventing Assad and his allies from imposing a destabilizing pre-war status quo on the country.
(Photo: SERGEI SAVOSTYANOV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)