The decision of the Turkish government over the past week to allow US strikes out of Incirlik Air Base (AB) is an interesting one. While on the surface the tactical implications appear beneficial, strategically this move actually sets back the goals US is trying to reach. While the basing allows the US to conduct airstrikes from a closer location, the actual impact on the tactical ability of US fighters to deliver ordinance is minimal. The only thing that closer basing provides is less of a requirement for tanker support. However, at the same time the addition of Turkey to the coalition against ISIL provides Turkey top cover for Turkish air strikes on Kurdish militias.
The Turkish air strikes are actually making it less likely that any kind of appreciable damage will be done to ISIL military capability. The six US F-16s currently in Incirlik do not compare to the dozens Turkey has available to attack the Kurds. The impact to the US strategy is as follows. The only way ISIL will be stopped on the ground, without perpetual US ground presence, is through the use of local forces which are able and willing to fight. Currently the Iraqi army and the so called Syrian moderates are unable to do so. The only two groups so far that have stopped and reversed ISIL advances have been Shiite and Kurdish militias. The US airpower definitely played an important tactical role, but the ground fighting was done by the militias.
As such, when Turkey attacks Kurdish militias which are fighting ISIL directly, the additional US air strikes made possible by the use of Incirlik AB mean nothing. If one of the only two capable opponents of ISIL is weakened, then the US goals to degrade and destroy ISIL will suffer setbacks. Given the Turkish support of Sunni Islamists all over the Middle East their actions should not come as a surprise. Turkey’s goal is to prevent the Kurds from forming a viable state, not to attack their coreligionists in Syria and Iraq. As far as ISIL goes, Turkey will do the bare minimum to be considered a coalition partner by the US, while continuing to devote the majority of their effort against the Kurds. The US should have never agreed to such arrangement.
Currently our best local units that do not hate the US, in both Syria and Iraq, are the Kurdish militias. To support any action against them is fallacy. The US should instead lean on both Turkey and Saudi Arabia to eliminate their support for the Sunni Extremists, which comprise most of the groups that are hostile to the US interests. As mentioned in previous posts, the US foreign policy strategy does not do a very good job on focusing on the root cause of the problem, the funding from our Sunni allies to the Sunni extremists. As Sunni Islamists supported by such funding attack US interests, we still don’t have a viable strategy to eliminate the problem at the source. Rather we continue to mow the grass as it were in the Middle East and hope for a different result each time, while the same nations we militarily support continue to actively work against our interests.
The Turkish actions are just the latest example of what is wrong with our strategy with regards to the Sunni extremist threat. To allow Turkey the cover of ISIL coalition to attack Kurds, some of the very people fighting ISIL, is a strategic mistake and will only ensure that ISIL remains strong and capable. Our tactical advantage of more airstrikes will not bring our stated goal of ISIL destruction closer. No amount of tactical success will ever compensate for strategic failure.