A Turkish drone targeted a convoy near the Suleimani Aiport in Iraqi Kurdistan last Thursday. General Mazloum Abdi, Kurdish commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and three US military personnel were in the convoy and at risk. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is desperate before national elections on May 14, 2023, with polls showing his Justice and Development Party (AKP) trailing by double digits. Picking a fight with both the SDF and the US so close to the election is a brazen play for support from Turkish nationalists. The reckless attack not only tarnishes Turkey’s international reputation. It also poisons US-Turkey relations, which are already deeply strained.
US support for the SDF is at the root of Erdogan’s grievance. The SDF is the point of the spear of America’s fight with the Islamic State. Erdogan believes the SDF is a terror group aligned with the PKK, with which Turkey has fought for decades. The SDF, America’s best ally in the fight against ISIS, has paid a steep price in that fight. More than 13,000 Kurdish fighters have died and 24,000 have been wounded fighting ISIS at America’s behest.
Turkey is nominally a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. There are, however, real questions about Ankara’s loyalty.
For example: tens of thousands of foreign fighters have traversed Turkey on their way to the frontlines in Syria. They were provided weapons, money, and logistical support by Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency. Turkish media has documented extensive support for ISIS by Turkey in the Battle for Kobani in 2014-15.
While supporting ISIS, Erdogan calls Mazloum a terrorist and demands that the US choose between Turkey, its NATO ally, and the SDF. Erdogan’s ultimatum puts the US in a difficult spot with Turkey, which has elsewhere shown itself to be an uncertain ally.
Turkey’s refusal to condemn the war in Ukraine or impose sanctions on Russia is another sore spot between the two countries. Turkey has become a sanctuary for Russian oligarchs seeking to shield their yachts and other assets from confiscation. At a time when NATO allies are cooperating to deprive Russia of revenue, Turkey purchases Russian oil and gas without hesitation.
Turkey has spent billions to buy S-400 surface to air missiles from Russia, ignoring US concerns. Turkey also continues its nuclear cooperation with Russia. Vladimir Putin plans to visit Turkey on April 27 to inaugurate Turkey’s first nuclear power plant built by Russia’s state nuclear energy company, Rosatom.
Thanks in part to Turkey-Russia relations, trust between the US and Turkey is at a low point. The US Congress has adopted the Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), to punish Turkey for its security cooperation with Russia. Turkey has also been suspended from the F-35 stealth fighter program. Congressional critics of Turkey are calling on the Pentagon to suspend the sale of F-16 war planes to Turkey, as well as upgrade kits and spare parts. They are also calling on the US to suspend intelligence sharing with Turkey, which allegedly leaks information to Iran.
For many reasons, Turkey is out of favor with NATO. Though Sweden has accommodated many of Turkey’s demands, Erdogan’s refusal to allow Sweden to join the Alliance has aggravated its relations with tNATO. With the exception of Hungary, NATO’s 31 members support Sweden’s membership.
Two issues predictably rile the nationalist Turkish electorate. Condemning Kurds always makes for good politics in Turkey. Anti-Americanism also plays well with Turkish voters. Last week’s attack in Suleimani was not the first attempted assassination of Mazloum by Turkey. In November, Turkey bombed a base used jointly by the SDF and US-led coalition forces in al-Hasaka. Many Turks welcome Erdogan’s willingness to confront Washington.Erdogan will do anything to advance his prospects of victory in the upcoming election. The US needs to draw a red line right here. Targeting American personnel is unacceptable.
The Biden administration should condemn Turkey’s attack on the convoy. Instead, US officials have demurred. They don’t want to disrupt Turkey’s purported cooperation in Ukraine. But kowtowing to Erdogan is misguided and shortsighted. The alliance against Russia will unravel if the US extends special favor to Turkey, while other countries pay a steep price. Erdogan must abide by the same rules, or face opprobrium.