Turkey’s southeastern provinces, northern Syria, and northern Iraq have been called its “Southeastern Corridor.” It might better be termed Turkey’s “Uber Security Dilemma!” The long-lasting struggle against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) ignited again in July 2016. Moreover, much of Turkey’s “Southeastern Corridor” has long been sunk in a most complex security dilemma that calls for a more careful Turkish proactive response that would give high priority to U.S.-Turkish cooperation. However, this can only be achieved by genuine empathy for each other’s visions, hopes, and fears, a situation that has been largely absent of late.
Indeed, with reason Turkey feels that the United States only supported the government of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the aborted coup of July 15, 2016 after it had clearly failed. During the coup’s initial hours, when it seemed plausible that it might succeed, the United States did not respond to the Turkish government’s calls for even moral support. This suggests that the United States really wanted the Erdogan government to be overthrown, even though the United States had nothing to do with the putsch. Only after events had clearly swung in favor of the incumbent government did the United States begin to announce its support. In addition, the U.S. government has been giving enormous amounts of military aid to the Syrian Kurdish PYD/YPG/YPJ to combat ISIS. However, in so doing the United States also has helped create what Turkey sees as an expanding proto-PKK state on its southern border.
More recently the Syrian civil war has also helped give rise to ISIS as well as the institutionalization of Rojava (Western or Syrian Kurdistan) as a second de facto autonomous Kurdish state (and in this second case one closely linked to the PKK). Within the horrific Syrian civil war raging just below Turkey’s southern borders, ISIS and Rojava, two dynamic non-state actors, have created a dilemma of new realities that cannot be ignored or imagined away by the now moribund Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.
As Turkey perceived matters, support for the Syrian Kurds in Kobane would be tantamount to aiding the PKK, a terrorist enemy that had been trying to dismember Turkey for more than 30 years. As Erdogan explained: “For us [the] PKK is what IS [ISIS] is.” Why should Turkey get involved when the United States, its superpower NATO ally, would not do more? It suited Turkey that ISIS and the Syrian Kurds were weakening each other by slugging it out while Turkey sat idle.
Michael M. Gunter is a professor at Tennessee Technological University and an advisory board member of the Turkish Heritage Organization.