Trump Weighs Options: Support Kurdish Allies or Bow to Fair-Weather Friend Turkey

The NATO ally is an ally in name only

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

We’re not at war with Turkey, but Turkey’s leaders have issued statements that they will strike our troops fighting ISIS if we aren’t careful. They have also demanded President Donald Trump rescind all aid to our Kurdish allies in the battle against ISIS. Trump must decide whether to stick with our Kurdish allies or appease Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It’s a little complicated figuring out how a NATO ally would threaten to bomb our troops, but here is how it all got started. After then-President Barack Obama famously mislabeled ISIS as “the JV team,” our government sent a thousand U.S. troops to stop these terrorists (including 400 U.S. Marines), who set up operations in Raqqa. Our anti-ISIS coalition is known as the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). The SDF is made up of Arab allies and Syrian Kurds known as the YPG and is supported by 66 countries.

Turkey hates the YPG because they accuse it of helping the PKK, a Kurdish resistance group blamed for terror attacks. After a Kurdish political party (the HDP) won enough votes in Turkey to deny President Erdogan a majority in June 2015, he launched attacks on the Kurds in his country in an attempt to win over nationalists before a new election a few months later. This war on the Kurds has been condemned by human rights groups for atrocities committed against them and against Turks at home.

America has insisted that the YPG fighters are needed to take out ISIS, as the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters make gains against the Islamic State, taking the place of large numbers of American soldiers. The U.S. rejects the claim that the YPG are responsible for any such bombings. In fact, ISIS has launched attacks at the airport, nightclubs, tourist sites and at opposition party rallies.

Sen. John McCain noted how integral YPG forces are, which is why some U.S. troops are working with them. These Kurds are doing the job that the Turkish regime has been unable—or unwilling—to do.

Fearing the success of these YPG fighters and the close bonds they are forming with Americans, Erdogan’s government has threatened to bomb Peshmerga fighters, hinting that U.S. soldiers could be killed in the process. Last week, Turkey bombed YPG units even though the American flag flies next to the YPG flag. Luckily, no Americans have been killed so far.

Erdogan adviser Ilnur Cevik said,  “If they go too far, we won’t care about the U.S. armored vehicles, and maybe some rockets will hit them by accident.”

Trump has a tough decision to make.

On one hand, he could continue America’s support for the YPG, the group making the most progress on the ground against ISIS and that has backed the United States in two conflicts against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

Or he could cave in to Erdogan and kick the Kurds to the curb. It might put a halt to Erdogan’s growing alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin and allow us to use that NATO base at Incirlik. The Turks are our allies too, of course.

But Erdogan has not always shown himself to be an American ally. After initially promising to help, he did not allow American troops to use Turkey as a base in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, upsetting U.S. attack plans. Under his regime, ISIS has managed to pass through Turkey quite easily, and opponents claim this is not an accident. After desperate officers launched a coup, Erdogan cut all the power to the NATO base at Incirlik. He has repeatedly accused America of masterminding the coup, thereby fanning the flames of anti-American sentiment. As for Trump, Erdogan demanded his name be removed from the Trump Towers in Turkey.

And now his government says our troops better watch out. We could get bombed by our ally as they seek to attack our anti-ISIS coalition.

Trump should consider telling Erdogan that he will be held responsible for any bombing attack that kills American troops and that he needs to focus more on sealing Turkey’s porous border with Syria, so ISIS doesn’t keep slipping through.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.  He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.