Why Turkey's "ISIS-Free Zone" Is The Most Ridiculous US Foreign Policy Outcome In History

The truly incredible thing about US foreign policy outcomes is that there are seemingly no limits on how absurd they can be. Indeed, Washington’s uncanny ability to paint itself into policy corners and create the most thoroughly flummoxing geopolitical quagmires in the history of statecraft knows absolutely no bounds. 

This was on full display back in April when Iran-backed Houthi rebels armed with some $500 million in small arms, ammunition, night-vision goggles, vehicles and "other supplies" that the Defense Department "donated" and then subsequently lost track of when US-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled to Riyadh, looked set to loot the Aden branch of Yemen’s central bank. Then there was the extremely unfortunate situation that unfolded in Mosul, Iraq last summer when militants that may well have received training from the US at some point overran the city and captured some 2,300 humvees and at least one Black Hawk helicopter which would not have been parked in Mosul in the first place were it not for Washington’s ill-advised decision to invade Iraq for the second time in barely a decade in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  

As ridiculous as those incidents most certainly were (and there are of course countless other examples), the situation currently playing out on Syria’s border with Turkey may mark a new high (or low, depending on how you look at it) point for US foreign policy - and that truly is saying something. 

Over the past several days, we’ve traced the escalating violence in Turkey to the ongoing conflict between Ankara and the PKK and to a landmark election outcome which saw President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lose his absolute majority in parliament for the first time in over a decade. Here’s a brief recap

Last week, it became abundantly clear that Turkey’s newfound zeal for accelerating the demise of Islamic State is motivated chiefly by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desire to nullify a ballot box victory by the pro-Kurdish HDP, which grabbed 13% of the vote and won party representation in June in an election that also saw AKP lose its absolute majority for the first time in over a decade. Now, Erdogan looks set to call for new elections as "efforts" to build a coalition government have largely failed. Erdogan needs but a two percentage-point swing to restore AKP’s absolute majority, which would in turn pave the way for his push to consolidate power by altering the structure of the government. A conveniently timed suicide bombing in Suruc that killed 32 people in late July was promptly pinned on ISIS sympathizers, setting off a chain of events that would culminate in NATO backing a renewed Turkish offensive against the Kurdish PKK. The escalation of violence between PKK forces and the Turkish army should help Erdogan undermine HDP's popularity ahead of new elections. Long story short: Turkey is essentially using a mock campaign against Islamic State to justify a renewed conflict with the PKK (they’re all “terrorists” after all) which Ankara will promptly cite as evidence of why voters should not back HDP when elections are held again in a few months. 

In exchange for backing Ankara’s offensive against the PKK and by extension, Erdogan’s political agenda, the US gets to use Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base to launch strikes on ISIS. As noted above, Turkey is ostensibly also executing airstrikes against the group (that’s part of the deal) but it’s abundantly clear to everyone involved that Ankara - which has long been suspected of cooperating with ISIS and has provided funding to other extremist groups fighting for control of Syria - is only concerned with eradicating the PKK, and if that means weakening YPG, PKK’s Syrian affiliate in the process, then so be it. 

The problem here - and this is where one can begin to see why this particular situation wins the blue ribbon for US foreign policy gone awry - is that YPG is extremely effective when it comes to fighting ISIS and indeed, the US has conducted airstrikes to support the group’s efforts to drive Islamic State from northern Syria. Here’s WSJ with more:

The U.S.-led coalition fighting the extremist group has conducted numerous airstrikes over the past year to back the Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria, which has proved to be the most effective ground force fighting Islamic State.


Before Syria’s war erupted four years ago, the country’s Kurds were concentrated in three enclaves spread along the northern border. Over the past year, they have risen up to beat back advancing Islamic State fighters, most notably in the border town of Kobani.


The YPG advances have allowed Kurdish forces to establish authority over more Syrian territory than before the war, according to the Institute for the Study of War, which tracks control of land in the fight against Islamic State. In recent months, backed by U.S. airstrikes, the YPG has forced Islamic State fighters out of 2,000 square miles of territory in northern Syria—an area the size of Delaware—according to the U.S. military.


Since regime forces withdrew from Kurdish areas, the Syrian Kurds have secured a degree of newfound autonomy that has fueled aspirations for independence across the region. They have set up their own administration and defense forces that have started taking responsibility for security in the three Kurdish cantons. The YPG victory over Islamic State in the town of Tal Abyad this summer established a physical link between two of the three Kurdish cantons for the first time.

So essentially, YPG has defeated ISIS in northern Syria, taken complete control of the area, and indeed, only one swath of land separates the group from commanding the entire border with Turkey.

Great, right? Wrong. Here’s The Journal again:

The U.S. and Turkey have reached an understanding meant to assure the Ankara government that plans to drive Islamic State militants from a proposed safe zone in northern Syria won’t clear the way for Kurdish fighters to move in.


The U.S.-allied Turkish government is embroiled in a decades-old conflict with its own Kurdish minority. Turkey has resisted working with the YPG out of concern that the militants are laying the groundwork for the creation of a new Kurdish nation along Syria’s northern border with Turkey.


Two weeks ago, Turkey agreed to launch airstrikes targeting Islamic State fighters in Syria and allow the U.S. to use bases on its soil for the first time to do the same. At Turkey’s urging, the U.S. agreed to use airstrikes to protect a border zone free of Islamic State and controlled by moderate Syrian rebels.


The Syrian Kurdish militia has pushed toward the eastern banks of the Euphrates River, the edge of Islamic State-controlled areas on the other side. The border zone the U.S. and Turkey want to set up is on the western side of the river.



YPG leaders said Monday they would work closely with allies, including the U.S.-led coalition and moderate rebel forces such as the Free Syrian Army or FSA, in the fight against Islamic State—also known as ISIS or ISIL.


However, they said they had made no commitment not to cross the Euphrates.


"The initial plan is to move to liberate the western side of the Euphrates once the areas to the east have been cleared of ISIS," said Idres Nassan, a senior Kurdish official in Kobani. 

That may have been the "initial plan", and indeed it certainly sounds like a good one, especially considering that, as is clear from the map above, it would mean YPG would have succeeded in driving ISIS completely off the country’s northern border, but that plan will apparently have to change now because Washington, after supporting YPG on the battlefield for the better part of a year, will now deliberately prevent the group from doing what they do best (defeating ISIS in northern Syria) because Ankara wants to ensure that the imagined "ISIS-free zone" (that’s the actual term) is also a Kurd-free zone:

The area where Turkey hopes to establish the border zone is filled with ethnic Turkmen and Arabs and Turkish leaders fear that the Kurdish fighters will try to drive them out.


"That’s a red line," said one Turkish official. “There are almost no Kurds in the area that would be the ISIL-free zone. Forcing the issue would trigger a new wave of ethnic cleansing, which is unacceptable to us."

To be sure, Washington isn’t entirely oblivious to how ridiculous this looks:

Keeping Kurdish fighters from moving farther west restricts America’s ability to work in northwestern Syria with a Kurdish militia that has proved an effective fighting force. U.S. officials have offered Turkey reassurances that they won’t rely on the YPG in that area, but have sought to give themselves wiggle room to work with the Kurdish fighters in that area if the needs arise.

Crystallizing the above and putting it in context is admittedly quite challenging because after all, trying to make sense of something so thoroughly nonsensical is probably an exercise in futility, but nevertheless, we'll try to untangle the situation as best we can. Turkey has long been criticized for not taking an active role in combatting the ISIS threat that is quite literally on the country's doorstep. Quite possibly, that reluctance stems from an amicable relationship between ISIS and Ankara and that relationship might well have remained amicable if Erdogan hadn't lost his grip on parliament in June. Now, the country's relationship with the militants will become a casualty of Erdogan's ruthless politically-motivated crackdown on the Kurdish PKK which, thanks to their classification as a "terrorist" group, is now sanctioned by the US which is of course using ISIS as an excuse to facilitate the ouster of Assad, a goal Washington shares with Ankara. Lost in the shuffle is YPG who, unlike the US and Turkey, is actually concerned with defeating Islamic State and is indeed on the verge of doing just that, but will sadly be stopped in their tracks by the same US military which has so far supported them because allowing YPG to complete their sweep of northern Syria risks aggravating Turkey which is a NATO member and which the US figures it may need once Assad is gone and the Qatar-Turkey natural gas pipeline gets the go ahead. 

So the US is now quite literally impeding the progress of the group which has so far "proven to be the most effective ground force fighting Islamic State," and the general public is so obtuse that most people will completely miss the completely ridiculous fact that the excuse the US and Turkey are giving for their efforts to stop YPG from routing ISIS in northern Syria is that the two countries are currently working on building an "ISIS-free zone" and YPG, which has in fact made virtually the entire northern border region "ISIS-free", is not welcome due to its fighters' ethnicity.