U.S. works with Turkey on ISIS but is wary of its politics

Willie Grace | 8/26/2015, 10 a.m.
On Tuesday, the U.S. and Turkey announced they had finalized joint anti-ISIS air operations, cementing a recent agreement to work ...
the Syrian opposition elected Ahmed Toma to be their new Interim prime minister on Saturday, Toma held press conference in Istanbul, Turkey.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has placed the Obama administration in a delicate position -- stepping up his country's involvement in the war on ISIS at precisely the moment he is making a power play to solidify his position as Turkey's leader.

On Tuesday, the U.S. and Turkey announced they had finalized joint anti-ISIS air operations, cementing a recent agreement to work more closely to take on the terror group in neighboring Syria and Iraq.

The new agreement with the U.S. came just one day after Erdogan took the unprecedented political step of calling for yet another round of elections after his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to form a coalition government despite earning a plurality of the vote held in June.

Many in the West see the newly called snap campaign as an attempt by Erdogan to increase his grip on power by seeking another election to secure his party a parliamentary majority rather than settle for a coalition government.

The confluence of events drives home the balance the Obama administration must strike between its goal of looking to promote democratic inclusiveness in Turkey and the Pentagon's increasing reliance on Erdogan's government for help battling ISIS.

In the months since the June election, Turkey has significantly increased its commitments to the anti-ISIS effort, allowing the U.S. to conduct air operations from its Incirlik military base and, with Tuesday's announcement, joining the air campaign itself.

"The fact that Turkey is now going to be flying alongside with other coalition aircraft is a significant step forward, one we've been waiting for," Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in welcoming the move.

The U.S. has long sought greater participation from Turkey in the effort to fight ISIS, in part because Incirlik is a much more convenient for U.S. sorties into Syria than the other existing options and also because Turkey's border with Syria has been a key transit point for foreign fighters seeking to join up with ISIS and the U.S. would like to see a greater clampdown.

Indeed, Cook said that cooperation with Turkey "remains a work in progress," but he also stressed that, "We believe that Turkey is committed" to the anti-ISIS mission.

Part of the difference between the U.S. and Turkish approaches to ISIS is a result of their divergent goals in the region.

While Washington has the eradication of ISIS as a top priority, Ankara is at least as concerned about the PKK, a Kurdish group that has launched frequent attacks on Turkey and has positions in Syria and Iraq.

In fact, some Western analysts see Erdogan's increase in support for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition as an extension of his political maneuvering.

The campaign against ISIS, along with recent actions against the Kurdish PKK, are "part and parcel," of Erdogan's election efforts, said Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as Erdogan seeks to promote nationalist sentiment to re-solidify his party's appeal.