Home Columns Opinion: Ethnic issues in Turkey have complicated the fight against ISIS

Opinion: Ethnic issues in Turkey have complicated the fight against ISIS

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In Syria, Aleppo seems to have taken a backseat to the fight against ISIS in Mosul. The location for the next major offensive in the war-torn nation will be Raqqa, the capital of the so-called Islamic State. This is good — the long, convoluted U.S.-Russia proxy war in Syria has been divisive, and humanitarian aid is desperately needed in Aleppo.

However, the fight against ISIS, at least in Raqqa, will not be without its own conflicts. Many of the various forces opposing the notorious terrorist organization are at odds with one another as well.

As with the battle in Aleppo, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces will lead the offensive in Raqqa. About 80 percent of SDF fighters come from the Kurdish Popular Protection Units, known as YPG, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey and caused the nation to withdraw support from the U.S. effort.

While fragmented forces will obviously weaken the U.S. effort against ISIS, it could possibly have a different, detrimental effect to relations between Turkey and the West.

Ethnic Kurds are a minority in Turkey, and organizations like the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have been recognized as terrorist groups by Turkey, the European Union and the U.S. The PKK has existed since the 1980s and was involved in a car bomb incident in August that left 11 Turkish policemen dead.

Not every Kurdish organization has been labeled a terrorist organization, but Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has taken action recently to suppress Kurdish voices. Over the past months, 130 Kurdish media organizations have been shut down, and hundreds of press members have been detained.

Turkey was seen as a beacon of stability in the chaos of the Middle East, but Erdogan’s recent actions have led world leaders to believe otherwise, which could have adverse consequences.

Turkey was set to become a member of the EU after an agreement was made in March. Between then and now, Turkey underwent a failed coup and a worsening situation in Syria, complicated further by ethnic tension with the Kurdish minority.

The EU Commission warned that recent actions by Turkey’s government have hurt its ability to join the EU. These actions include reinstating the death penalty, the violation of free expression rights and allegations of human rights abuses in Kurdish-dominated areas. The political instability, mainly regarding ethnic issues with the Kurds, has prevented coordination with the EU and the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.

This spells trouble for the EU and U.S. in a number of ways, starting with the lack of Turkish support in the fight against ISIS. The Kurdish forces fighting ISIS and Assad’s regime are being backed by the U.S. because they wouldn’t stand a chance otherwise. These are rebel groups and militias that lack the strategic coordination and arms supply to successfully fend off extremists.

While Turkey has been fully opposed to the Kurdish forces within its own borders and in neighboring countries, it has remained a U.S. ally. There’s still hope for the country to gain entry into the EU — a move which would solidify Turkey’s alliance with the West.

That is the second potential issue here; Turkey’s recent actions have weakened its own democracy and look eerily similar to freedom of press violations in Russia.  

This brings us back to the battle in Raqqa. The U.S. has refused to coordinate with Assad and Russian forces in the Raqqa offensive, which opens the door to Turkish and Russian collaboration. To make matters worse, Turkey distancing itself from the EU effectively drives a wedge between Turkey and Western democracy, which Turkey is slowly losing. If Turkey opens up the door to Russia, we may be dealing with more aggressive Russian expansion in the face of NATO.

There have always been complications in the Middle East, but Turkey has been a vital ally to the United States, one we can’t afford to lose. If ethnic conflicts stand in the way of Turkish assistance to the U.S. effort against ISIS, the U.S. must mediate the political turbulence in Turkey in order to maintain its international responsibility.

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