When Turkey finally agreed to join U.S.-led efforts to fight Islamic State, Ankara was supposed to make the battle against the extremist group more effective. Yet within days, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, bombed not just Islamic State forces but also, with even greater fervor, the one group showing some success in keeping them at bay: the Kurds.
The United States miscalculated by bringing in Erdogan. Turkey’s embattled and volatile leader looks far less interested in combating Islamic State than in reclaiming his power at home. Erdogan’s personal agenda, however, cannot be allowed to alienate U.S. partners and prolong the conflict.
Washington’s first priority here should be to preserve its constructive alliances with Kurdish groups in the fight against Islamic State. It must also prevent Turkey from further undermining the key strategic goal of defeating the jihadists.
So U.S. officials should be taking a far stronger stance against Erdogan’s attacks on the Kurds. One complicating factor is that both Ankara and Washington have labeled the target of Turkish operations — the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — a terrorist organization. But there are related Kurdish organizations that U.S. leaders can and should approach, publicly reassure and privately work with to maintain their cooperation against Islamic State.
First, the Syrian Kurdish political movement, the Democratic Union Party, though ideologically related to the PKK, is considered a separate organization and not designated as a terrorist group under U.S. law. Its leader, Saleh Muslim, should be invited to Washington expeditiously for high-level consultations with government officials. These meetings could publicly demonstrate Washington’s continued commitment to the Syrian Kurds.