By Michael A. Reynolds*
On November 24, a Turkish F-16 fighter jet downed a Russian SU-24M ground bomber near the Turkish-Syrian border after it violated Turkish airspace over the southern tip of Turkey’s most southern province of Hatay. The clash resulted in the death of one of the Russian aircraft’s two pilots. According to Turkish reports, Turkish air patrols had warned a pair of Russian jets flying in the area multiple times over the course of five minutes not to violate Turkish airspace. When, however, the SU-24M entered Turkish airspace, an F-16 brought it down with an air-to-air missile.
By all accounts, the Russian violation of Turkish airspace lasted for just seventeen seconds, and there was never any suspicion that the Russian air force either now or in the future had any intent of striking Turkey. Was this just an unfortunate miscalculation of the sort that multiple observers have warned would be all too likely to occur as the number of warring parties in Syria has increased, the product of Russian pilot error or recklessness, or a nervous, trigger-happy Turkish Air Force? Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested nearly as much when he said the Turkish military would have acted differently had it known that the target was a Russian (as opposed to a Syrian) aircraft, a point repeated by other Turkish officials.
In the wake of the incident, Moscow has explicitly dismissed the possibility of war or open hostilities with Turkey. This is not, however, because Moscow believed the Turkish action was mistaken or accidental. To the contrary, a collected yet visibly incensed Vladimir Putin denounced the act as “a stab in the back.” The Chief of the Air and Space Forces of the Russian Federation in a press conference suggested that the Turkish attack was preplanned and claimed that, in the course of carrying out its attack, it had spent forty seconds in Syrian airspace, penetrating to a depth of two kilometers inside.
Among world leaders, Putin ranks among the more intelligent and he is generally deliberate in his speech. His choice of words is therefore noteworthy. A “stab in the back” is by definition an act of perfidy that deserves severe punishment. Notably, Putin did not employ the phrase to justify severe retaliation against Turkey (although Russia’s disavowal of overt retribution beyond suspension of certain economic agreements does not exclude the possibility of other, more direct forms of reprisals later). In other words, Putin did not use the accusation of treachery to cover some form of escalation against Turkey. Instead, his charge of betrayal is rooted in the assumption that the coalition of powers arrayed against ISIS – including Turkey, Russia, the US, the UK, and France among others – does in fact represent a genuine alliance against ISIS.
The downing of the Russian jet revealed, however, that no such alliance exists. Even as the circle of ISIS’s opponents has widened, so have the rivalries and contradictions among them increased. ISIS has benefited from the contradictions among its opponents and will continue to do so. The fact is that none of the actors fighting ISIS, including the US, has the destruction of ISIS as an overriding priority. As each of the coalition members engages in efforts to destroy ISIS, it seeks to accomplish other goals simultaneously. This fiction of a common front against ISIS creates layers of confusion and sets up all the actors for dangerous misperception and miscommunication. Turkey’s clash with Russia highlighted the most explosive fault line in the anti-ISIS coalition: that between NATO and Russia. Although Turkey and Russia have since been sending signals that neither intends to provoke open hostilities, the incident made clear that a war between NATO and Russia is longer inconceivable and is already that much closer. Russia and NATO have bumped up against each other in armed conflicts in Kosovo, Georgia, and Ukraine, but this is the first time they have exchanged fire since the Cold War.
The View from the Kremlin
Vladimir Putin rose to power in 1999 amidst the invasion of the Russian Republic of Dagestan by Islamist radicals based in Chechnya. He subsequently succeeded in defeating jihadism in Chechnya. Although violence remains endemic in the North Caucasus, most of this violence is intra-Muslim. It does not represent popular anti-Russian sentiment. Putin as Russia’s head of state has deftly managed good relations with both Russia’s significant Muslim population and with international Islamic organizations. Putin has never had any illusion that Sunni radicalism can be anything but Russia’s foe, however, and he committed Russia to fight ISIS even before it blew up a Russian passenger jet on October 31.
Putin’s analysis of how to defeat ISIS contrasts starkly with that of Obama, whose administration continues to insist against all empirical evidence on the existence of a “moderate” armed opposition to the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad. Despite the fact that the US has spent at least several hundred million dollars to recruit and train such moderate rebels, by the summer of 2015 it had trained no more than perhaps three score, most of whom were swiftly compromised and captured upon deployment. This is in addition to the failure of the US to build a viable Iraqi army to stop ISIS despite spending vast sums on training and equipment. This American track record notwithstanding, both Secretary of State John Kerry and the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs felt competent to warn that Russia’s deployment of forces to Syria would rouse the opposition of Sunnis throughout the region and even “the entire Sunni world.” Such claims say more about persisting American misconceptions of Islam than they do about threats to Russia. Sunni Muslims have lacked political unity ever since the seventh century, and the notion that today’s 1.3 billion Sunnis might constitute a bloc in opposition to Russia hardly credible.
Moreover, Putin might be forgiven for declining advice from Americans on how to interact with Muslims, not simply because of the ambiguity of America’s own record but because Russia’s own experience with Islam and Muslims is both far older and deeper than America’s. Muslims have since the middle of the sixteenth century been a substantial part of the Russian population and Russia has maintained diplomatic relations with Muslim khanates and states even longer. Indeed, Muscovy was a tributary to the Muslim Golden Horde before it came into existence as an independent state. Both the Romanov and Soviet states had large (and predominantly Sunni) Muslim populations, and today’s Russian Federation’s population is roughly fifteen percent Muslim. Ignorant of Russia’s centuries-old experience with Islam, commentators responded to Russia’s deployment of forces to Syria with predictions of ultimate defeat by pointing to the examples of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and Moscow’s in Chechnya. The American intervention in Afghanistan has significantly exceeded the Soviet in scale and duration.
Critics of the Russian intervention in Syria have correctly pointed out that the Russian armed forces have delivered the bulk of their air and cruise missile attacks not against ISIS but rather the various rebel groups fighting Assad’s regime. Indeed, Russia’s targeting of Syrian Turkmen rebels, clients of Ankara, may well have been a prime motive behind the downing of the SU-24. Accusing Moscow of deceit, the critics contend that Russia’s real objective is not the defeat of ISIS but rather the defense of Assad. In Putin’s view, the defense of Assad and defeat of ISIS are not contradictory goals but in fact logically complementary. The analysis goes beyond the fact that Assad’s army remains the main obstacle to ISIS’s victory in Syria. Assad’s regime control’s roughly half of Syria’s territory and three-quarters of its population. The problem in Syria, according to the Kremlin, is not limited to ISIS in particular, but includes Sunni radicalism more generally. Assad’s overthrow, in this view, will lead not to a moment of national reconciliation but instead to the victory of hardline radicals who will persecute and perhaps even slaughter Syria’s remaining Christians and Alawites whom Assad’s regime has protected, as well as Assad’s numerous Sunni supporters. Just as the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt precipitated Sunni radical bids for dominance, so, too, the will the fall of Assad.
Back in 2011 when the Syrian uprising began – part of the so-called “Arab Spring” – Moscow’s apprehensions about Assad’s fall had less to do with stemming the advance of Sunni radicalism and more to do with checking what it perceived as an aggressive American global campaign of “regime change,” whereby Washington was funding and manipulating social unrest to topple hostile or inconvenient governments and replace them with American clients. The Arab Spring appeared to be the Middle East variant of the so-called “color revolutions” in Georgia, Kyrgystan, and Ukraine. John McCain’s taunt of Putin on Twitter, “Dear Vlad, The #ArabSpring is coming to a neighborhood near you” [sic] undoubtedly reinforced Kremlin paranoia about a concerted American program to shakeup and bring down governments through the use of subversive NGOs and social media. Given the outcome of the Arab Spring and the inconsistency of American policy in Iraq and Syria, the Kremlin has recognized what is perhaps a more frightening reality: America, much like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, is not at all in control of the forces it has unleashed.
Putin, of course, has other motives to intervene on Assad’s behalf beyond the battle against Sunni radicals. Knowing that Washington is eager for Assad’s ouster, Putin saw an opportunity to outflank the US in the Mideast and thereby gain leverage that can be applied to resolving the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The opportunity comes at relatively low cost and risk. The Russian expeditionary force in Syria is not large, and in order to frustrate US policy it needs only to preserve the Syrian government in place. It is not obliged to defeat ISIS decisively. Not least important, Putin knows Russia is not alone in Syria. Iran is even more invested in keeping Assad’s government in existence.
Turkey and Its Motives
Turkey, like Russia, is a member of the coalition against ISIS. But whereas Putin seeks to keep Assad in power as a bulwark against Sunni radicalism, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu are committed to Assad’s ouster. In part they do so because they believe that the path to overcoming ISIS lies through the removal of Assad. According to this view, it was the Baathist regime’s widespread use of often-indiscriminate violence that radicalized its opponents and drove many toward ISIS. Assad’s ouster and that of his regime is therefore a prerequisite for the defeat of ISIS. Reinforcing Erdogan’s and Davutoglu’s determination to see Assad’s downfall are three more factors. They, like many Turks, identify at a visceral level as Sunnis with Assad’s predominantly Sunni victims. The suffering of Assad’s victims moves them. They believe to the point of naiveté in the transformative power of Sunni political activism. Davutoglu and Erdogan have consistently and vigorously cultivated ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas at the cost of severe damage to Turkey’s bilateral relations with Egypt and Israel. They turned an indulgent eye on ISIS early on. Lastly, the two Turkish leaders bear a personal animus toward Assad. In 2009, they had begun cooperating closely with Assad, but his willful employment of violence against protestors in 2011 against Erdogan’s appeals left Ankara seething.
Many interpreted Ankara’s decision this past July to open its airbases to American aircraft for strikes against ISIS as a big success for the Obama administration in the fight against ISIS. Not only does the proximity of Turkish airbases to ISIS simplify the logistics of airstrikes significantly, but they believed that Turkey’s active entry into the war against ISIS would substantially change the dynamics of the war. ISIS had been exploiting the porousness of Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq,. moving personnel and supplies in from Turkey and exporting oil and various forms of contraband into Turkey. Indeed, many sources, including Turkish ones, had been accusing Ankara of actively supporting ISIS.
Turkey’s move in July did sunder whatever comfortable relationship with ISIS that had existed before. In preparation for the announcement, Turkish security forces had been rounding up ISIS suspects for several weeks, and pounced on several hundred more suspects immediately after, severely constraining ISIS’ ability to operate inside Turkey. It did not eliminate that ability, as suicide bombings at Suruç, Diyarbakır, and Ankara have demonstrated. Notably, those bombings targeted not Turkish military or police targets, but crowds of pro-Kurdish activists.
ISIS is a savage organization but not an entirely stupid one. It grasps the utility of exploiting the vulnerabilities of its opponents, and in the case of Turkey there is no greater vulnerability than the Kurdish Question. When it was founded in 1923 as a self-consciously modern nation-state, the Turkish Republic recognized only a single identity – Turkish – for its majority Muslim citizens. The idea was that a state married to a homogenous society would be more powerful and resistant to process of ethnic fissure and partition that helped bring down the Ottoman empire. Accordingly, the Turkish Republic for some seven decades vigorously insisted on the specifically Turkish character of its population. Its Kurds, however, composing some fifteen percent of the overall population and compactly settled in Turkey’s southeast, resisted assimilation and took up arms to do so. Over the course of the past decade, Erdogan and Davutoglu have taken fitful but bold steps to accommodate Kurdish identity and demands for greater cultural freedom.
The Turkish Republic faces a dedicated, disciplined, and highly lethal foe in the form of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which in the name of Kurdish nationalism has been waging war against the Turkish Republic for over three decades. Long isolated from the West due to its extensive employment of terror tactics including suicide bombing, the PKK in the past year has found new and unaccustomed favor in the West due to the success of its armed units in combat with ISIS. The US armed forces have been coordinating operations against ISIS with the PKK’s subsidiary in Syria, the PYD. Moreover, the American and European media, conveniently albeit ignorantly lumping together all Kurdish organizations from the quasi-tribal political parties of Iraqi Kurdistan to the revolutionary PKK, now sing the praises of the Kurds. Western commentators and opinion-makers imagine the Kurds as not just opponents of ISIS but indeed an innately secular, liberal, and democratic people. This image represents a remarkable turn around for the Kurds. The Western press in the nineteenth century routinely demonized the Kurds as semi-barbarous tribesmen and fanatic anti-Christians.
Accordingly, the PKK is striving today to exploit this unaccustomed favor and is again pressing ahead with its war against the Turkish Republic. In July it pre-empted the Turkish airstrikes against its headquarters in the Qandil Mountains of Iraq with a comprehensive campaign of attacks on targets throughout Turkey. It continues to mount attacks. Perhaps the most worrisome thing for Ankara has been the PKK’s success in mobilizing the frustrated youth in the cities of Turkey’s heavily Kurdish southeast. Whereas just a few years ago it seemed possible that Erdogan, whose distance from Kemalist nationalism and emphasis upon Muslim identity and socially conservative values attracted the sympathy of many Kurdish voters, might manage to resolve Turkey’s Kurdish Question, today it appears that a new generation of embittered Kurdish youth is being formed.
The Syrian civil war has greatly complicated Kurdish politics inside Turkey. Erdogan and Davutoglu’s refusal a year ago to intervene in support of the beleaguered Kurdish defenders of the Syrian border town of Kobani fighting against ISIS alienated a great many of Turkey’s Kurds. They interpreted Ankara’s passivity as at best gross indifference to Kurdish lives; at worst, they perceived a concerted conspiracy against the Kurds. But the defenders of Kobani were not mere Kurds, but the PKK’s surrogate, the PYD. It would have been just short of miraculous for Ankara to have had intervened to save its most bitter and dangerous foe, particularly as it was striving to carve out an enclave extending along the length of the Turkish-Syrian border. Nonetheless, Ankara’s decision for inaction has had immense negative consequences.
Turkey’s prioritization of its war against the PKK over the fight against ISIS should surprise no one, yet it does many Americans. Worse, they compound their surprise with indignation and accuse the Turks’ of treachery. Yet there is simply no comparison between the magnitude of the threat that ISIS poses to Turkey and the one that the PKK does. The latter alone poses a bona fide existential threat. As to treachery, from the Turkish point of view that word appropriately describes the readiness of the Americans to collaborate with the subsidiary of an organization the West itself officially labels terrorist and that has been the cause of a conflict that has taken the lives of an estimated 40,000 Turkish citizens. Should the PKK employ inside Turkey weapons supplied by Americans to the PYD in Syria, a major blowout in Turkish-American relations would not be unthinkable (although the altercation with Russia does reduce the likelihood that Turkey would risk its ties to the US).
A peaceful resolution of Turkey’s Kurdish Question is still not out of the question, and Turkey’s Kurds are far from united behind the PKK. Whereas in the June parliamentary elections, Kurdish voters abandoned the AKP en masse, substantial numbers came back to the party in the recent snap elections of October 2015. The PKK’s strident revolutionary ideology and cult of personality repels many Kurds, and with Kurdish integration into Turkish society only accelerating – Istanbul is the city with the world’s largest Kurdish population – the appeal of radicalism for some is fading even as others, such as the urban youth mentioned above, find it attractive. But the AKP has burned up much of its credibility with the Kurds. Such things as its perpetuation of a crude Turkish nationalist double-standard by championing Turkmen rebels in Syria and Iraq, its tolerance for mob violence against the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, and its suppression of law-abiding Kurdish activists at home alienate Turkish citizens of Kurdish descent.
ISIS understands this fault-line, and thus has targeted pro-Kurdish demonstrators in Diyarbakir (June 5), Suruç (20 July), and Ankara (10 July) with progressively more lethal bombs. The latter attack took the lives of over one-hundred people, making it the bloodiest terrorist act in Turkey’s history. Given the leftish orientation of the Kurdish movement in Turkey and its ties to the PKK, pro-Kurdish political rallies make logical targets for ISIS. But what makes the bombings truly effective is that they inflame the distrust many of Turkey’s Kurds feel toward their state, which they fear may not only not care about protecting them but might even be using ISIS to targeting them. Turkey today teeters on the brink of a civil war. The country once thought to be the dynamo that would pull the rest of the Middle East to liberal democracy is being dragged into the sort of self-destruction that has been grinding up Syria and Iraq, not to mention Yemen, Libya, and other Middle Eastern states.
American Incoherence and Obama’s Path into the Dangerzone
Even as Turkey’s and Russia’s jousting over Syria has spiraled into armed conflict, the Obama administration persists in following an incoherent strategy. That strategy, to the extent it merits that description, seeks to destroy or neutralize ISIS while at the same time unseating Assad while minimizing direct American involvement through the use of “moderate” rebels who are anti-Assad and anti-ISIS in conjunction with a broad international coalition that includes patrons of the Assad regime (e.g. Russia) and committed enemies (e.g. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar). It is difficult to know where to begin in critiquing the approach. Structurally, the Obama policy resembles the earlier failed American policy of “Dual Containment” pursued against Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Iraq and the Islamic Revolutionary Republic of Iran. Unable to decide which state posed the greater threat, Washington attempted to confront and contain both at the same time, forfeiting the opportunity to exploit their mutual antagonism. By the end of the 1990s, that policy was coming undone. The inability to sustain Dual Containment led to the sudden US decision i to target Saddam Hussein’s regime and invade Iraq.
Now again, this time in Syria, Washington is attempting to confront two mutually antagonistic parties simultaneously. Yet what the Obama administration seeks to accomplish in Syria is more difficult by orders of magnitude. The patchwork of forces on the ground consisting of Kurdish militias, anti-Assad rebel groups, and Iranian-backed Shi’i militias in Iraq has proven strong enough to hem in ISIS when supported by American and other airstrikes. But there is little likelihood that any part of this patchwork will drive into ISIS’s heartland and destroy it. The lightly armed Kurds, for example, have neither the capability nor still less the motivation to drive deeply into predominantly Arab lands. Such strategic overreach would have potentially catastrophic consequences for any project of Kurdish autonomy or independence. The greatest regional beneficiary from the crushing of ISIS would be Iran, and this alone would probably suffice to ensure that ISIS would draw on enough support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two regional powers desperate to stem the spread of Iranian influence, to maintain itself.
If the destruction of ISIS is a desirable but improbable outcome, it is not clear that the toppling of Assad is necessarily desirable. Obama has two compelling reasons to seek Assad’s overthrow. The first is that Assad is a vile character responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands and the radicalization of many more. As noted earlier, Assad’s savage crackdown on protesters in 2011 pushed many Syrians to join jihadi outfits including ISIS. The second and more important reason Washington seeks Assad’s ouster is that he serves as a key lynchpin in Iran’s ability to project power and influence throughout the region and in particular to Israel’s border with Lebanon via Hezbollah. Breaking that link has long been a US objective, and four years ago at the beginning of the Arab Spring it looked imminent as a popular uprising against Assad began to take shape.
Over four years later, however, Assad is still in power. Through the Machiavellian use of mass violence, he sharply polarized Syria’s population, forcing them to make a choice between his regime or a jihadi regime, and thereby secured the support albeit begrudgingly, of the larger part of Syria. Iran and Hezbollah lent critical backing. Now, Russia’s intervention all but ensures that his personal rule, or at least his regime, will endure. Although American officials greeted that intervention with a mixture of befuddlement, anger, and offense, the fact is that Putin may well have rescued Washington from a fiasco of its own making. The key Syrian element on which Washington predicates the success of its Syria policy is a “moderate” armed opposition to Assad. In order for Washington to realize its goals, these moderates need to be strong enough to topple Assad, beat out any rivals, take control of Syrian territory, and restore order upon it. Yet there no evidence that any such force exists or will ever come into being. This is not for a lack of effort or resources. On a single program alone Washington spent roughly $500 million dollars. The grand result, according to the testimony of the CENTCOM commander, was the training of four or five individuals.
Given this monumental failure, what good reason is there to expect that the fall of Assad and his regime would not lead to more violent chaos or the triumph of radical Sunnis or, still more likely, ISIS itself? It is difficult to see how such outcomes serve the American interest. Additionally, either of the latter two scenarios would likely have culminated in the massacre and expulsion of Syria’s Christians and Alawites, whom many of Assad’s fundamentalist opponents regard not simply as political rivals of the moment but as metaphysical adversaries. Among many Sunni Arab fundamentalists there is a bizarrely ahistorical yet widespread belief that Christianity in Syria represents not an indigenous faith that took root in Syrian soil centuries before the arrival of Islam to that land but is instead an alien entity transplanted to Syria by the Crusaders. That the Alawites deserve contempt and even hatred is a tenet of the many strains of Sunni fundamentalism that take their guidance from the immensely influential theologian of the fourteenth century, Ibn Taymiyya. The Alawites, Ibn Taymiyyah, warned are “greater disbelievers than the Christians and Jews.”
The confusion, hesitance and half-measures that have been hallmarks of the Obama administration’s Syria policy are easy to understand. The situation in Syria is complex and does not point to any self-evident solutions, let alone easy ones. Yet because ISIS does constitute a real threat to regional order and even world order, the situation in Syria cannot be ignored. Hence the appeal of Obama’s policy of containing ISIS while keeping Syria at arm’s length is easy to grasp. The hope is that the admixture of the efforts of local proxies on the ground with the limited but cumulative efforts of a broad coalition of countries executing airstrikes, economic sanctions, and covert operations will suffice to neutralize ISIS. The project, however, has two fatal flaws. The first is that absent a major ground force armed and prepared to invade and occupy the heartland of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, ISIS will persist. The second and greater flaw is that virtually none of the key members of the anti-ISIS coalition hold the destruction of ISIS to be their number one priority. Thus even as they contribute to operations to destroy ISIS the coalition members inevitably work competitively to outmaneuver their nominal coalition partners. The weaker ISIS gets, the more intense the intra-coalition competition is likely to become. This is not unusual. This is the classic dilemma of coalition warfare.
As the clash between Turkey and Russia has shown, the inclusion of so many parties with contradictory and even antagonistic goals in a nominal alliance against a highly unusual opponent carries considerable risks. The crisis between Turkey and Russia has not passed and perhaps not even peaked. Although Putin disavowed any military retaliation against Turkey and thus far Russia’s response has been limited to such things as economic measures targeting Turkey’s energy, tourism, and agricultural sectors and the suspension of military ties, Putin explicitly warned on December 3 that anyone who thinks Turkey, “having perpetrated a despicable military crime, the murder of our people… will get off by paying with tomatoes” is “gravely mistaken.” Predicting that Turkey “will rue” what it has done, he concluded ominously, “We know what we must do.”
Russia has a wide range of options for retaliation. Russia is Turkey’s second largest trading partner. But as Putin explained, he will not confine his response to disrupting trade. This should worry Ankara. Turkey’s great vulnerability is the Kurdish Question, and the country is currently on the brink of a civil war. Russia has a long and rich history of interest –diplomatic, military, and academic – in the Kurds that dates back to the eighteenth century. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Russian Imperial Army employed Kurdish auxiliaries with success in it multiple wars with the Ottomans and Persians, and in the years leading up to World War I the Russian Foreign Ministry and army were running a comprehensive program of subversion and insurgency among the Kurds of eastern Anatolia against the Ottoman Empire. The Soviet Union similarly employed Kurds to subvert both Turkey and Iran throughout the Cold War, and it was in particular an important sponsor of the PKK. Indeed, even after the fall of the USSR, Moscow maintained its ties with the organization. Well before the downing of the SU-24, Putin had named the Kurds as allies against ISIS. The head of the PYD Salih Muslim has publicly reiterated his willingness to cooperate with Moscow and the PYD has applied to open a representative office or “consulate” in Moscow. Russian airstrikes in Syria reportedly have been supporting the PYD’s advance across the Euphrates into the last stretch of territory along the Syrian-Turkish border that is not under Kurdish control.
Turkey, of course is not helpless before Russia in the realm of proxy warfare. Russia’s North Caucasus remains a troubled region vulnerable to destabilization. The North Caucasian diaspora inside Turkey is significant, and throughout the past two decades Chechen and other Caucasian insurgents have used Turkey as a base for recruitment and recuperation. Many believe that the Turkish National Intelligence Organization sponsored some of these insurgents in the 1990s. It would not be difficult for Turkey to revive such an approach. Erdogan and Davutoglu in the past were quite sympathetic to the Chechen rebels, as were many Turks, particularly Sunni activists. Such an undertaking, however, would be treacherous. Because jihadists thoroughly dominate the organized resistance in the North Caucasus today, such an undertaking would effectively place Turkey on the side of ISIS, in whose ranks a substantial number of mujahidin from the North Caucasus are actively fighting.
Some news reports indicate that US special operations forces and local proxies are currently enjoying ongoing tactical successes against ISIS, in particular in targeting and killing its field commanders. While this is good news, its importance should not be exaggerated. Similar tactical victories in Afghanistan and Iraq failed to eliminate al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and the vanquishing of al-Qaeda in Iraq preceded the birth of ISIS. The real challenge will be restoring governance throughout Syria and Iraq, and it is difficult to imagine that the coalition against ISIS will hold together until that point. The rift between Turkey and Russia looks set to widen and could explode. Nor is it the only rift. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are more concerned with Iran than ISIS, and the recent visit of French President Hollande to Moscow where he and Putin agreed to collaborate against ISIS suggests that some members of NATO may see Turkey, not Russia, as the bigger problem. In its determination to win the war against ISIS with a minimal US military commitment, the Obama administration would be wise to pay even more attention to the diplomacy of alliance management.
About the author:
*Michael A. Reynolds – a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East – is an Associate Professor in Princeton’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, where he teaches courses on modern Middle Eastern and Eurasian history, comparative empire, military and ethnic conflict, and secularism. He is author of Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918 (Cambridge University Press, 2011), co-winner of the 2011 American Historical Association’s George Louis Beer Prize, a Choice outstanding title, and a Financial Times book of the summer. In addition to his historical research on the Ottoman and Russian empires and their successor states, Reynolds works on contemporary issues related to Turkey, the Kurds, Azerbaijan, and the North Caucasus.
This article was published by FPRI.
 On the regime’s significant number of Sunni backers, see https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/syrias-sunnis-and-the-regimes-resilience