10/24/2014 04:17 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2014

Turkey's 'Road to Damascus' Moment

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The ongoing fighting in and around the Syrian town of Kobani nestled along the border with Turkey has captured the world's attention. With the assistance of U.S. air support, the Syrian Kurdish fighters have beaten back concerted attacks from the forces of the Islamic State. Now that Turkey has agreed to open up its borders so reinforcements can be deployed from Iraqi Kurdistan, there is hope that Kobani can hold, and, in doing so, deal the Islamic State a rare defeat. The military ramifications of the Kobani fighting have yet to be fully understood. The concentration of military resources on this geographically isolated town has resulted in the diversion of Kurdish and allied military capability away from other strategically important sectors, leaving them vulnerable to attack from the Islamic State. Indeed, a recent offensive in Anbar province, coupled with coordinated attacks by Islamic State fighters against 15 other targets in Syria and Iraq, underscores the military versatility of the Islamic State that goes far beyond a single battle for a remote town in Syria. The U.S. and Kurdish forces are fighting a largely reactive battle against an Islamic State enemy that holds the strategic initiative and is dictating the time and place of battle. Nothing about the Kobani fighting changes that reality.

The fighting in Kobani has exposed another weakness in the fragile coalition assembled by the United States to confront and defeat the Islamic State. The imagery of Turkish tanks standing idly along the border while, over the border, Syrian Kurds engage in a life-and-death struggle with Islamic State fighters resonated around the world, and exposed a deep fracture in the foundation of this coalition. Turkey has made it clear that it hesitates to provide material support to Kurdish forces it views as "terrorists" without this support being packaged as part of a larger effort that is designed to remove Syria's President Bashar al-Assad from power. The Turks are looking for a security buffer along its border with Syria, together with a no-fly zone, both of which would be designed to eliminate Syrian government control over large swaths of Syrian territory. This would be done not only to secure Turkey's frontier from any spill-over in the conflict with the Islamic State, but also to isolate and destabilize the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and help facilitate the conditions that would lead to his removal from power.

The Turks argue that the Assad regime's continued survival serves as the focal point for attracting Islamist fighters to Syria, and that if the West were truly interested in draining the Islamist swamp in Syria and Iraq, then it must focus on what it believes to be the source of the swamp, namely Assad. The United States and its allies have been hesitant to embrace such a policy, despite having, for years, called for Assad's removal. Turkey's emphasis on regime change in Damascus is itself a sharp deviation from past policy. Up until 2011, the relationship between Turkey's Prime Minister (and President-elect) Recep Erdogan and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad was considered to be close, building on Assad's historic visit to Ankara in 2004, the first by a Syrian leader. But the emergence of violent opposition to the Assad regime in the spring of 2011 led to a split between the two leaders that quickly became rancorous. Today it seems unlikely that the two leaders could ever reconcile their differences.

If there is ever going to be a solution to the problem of the Islamic State that has a hope of preserving the current geo-political structure of Mesopotamia and the Levant, it rests with the survival of Bashar al-Assad's regime and the resurgence of Syria as a viable national player in the region. Turkey took a leading role in divorcing itself from the Assad regime in 2011, an action which, in many ways, helped precipitate the current Islamic State fiasco. What is needed now is not a continuation of this disastrous policy, but rather a "Road to Damascus" conversion on the part of Turkey which re-embraces Bashar al-Assad as the legitimate ruler of Syria, and, in doing so, creates the foundation for the isolation and defeat of the Islamic State in Syria, and later Iraq. Turkey, with its shared history and geo-political circumstance, is ideally suited for such a role. Whether or not it chooses to take such a path is another question.

The United States and Europe continue to view the animosity between Assad and Erdogan through the imperfect lens offered by Samuel Huntington's 1993 article in Foreign Affairs, "The Clash of Civilizations?" (itself a derivative of Bernard Lewis' 1990 essay, "The Roots of Muslim Rage.") Huntington's construct presumes a world swept up in a "clash" between radical Islam and the modern, secular West. Huntington describes Turkey as a "torn" nation, struggling to free itself from its historical and cultural Islamist roots so that it might aspire to enter the ranks of modern, "western" nations. By extension, Syria's secular, "westernized" government finds itself in conflict with its own inherent Sunni Islamist reality, which is rebelling against what it considers to be the artificial construct of a secular state controlled by an Alawite minority. Both scenarios fit nicely into Huntington's simplistic scheme, which is why the West continues, by and large, to embrace the Huntington model when trying to comprehend what is taking place inside Syria and Iraq, especially with regard to the Islamic State phenomenon.

But fact trumps fiction, and Huntington's overarching theory fails primarily because its premise is void of the kind of nuance that defines reality. Rather than shedding its status as a Muslim nation, Erdogan's Turkey instead seeks to liberate itself from an artificial secularism forcefully imposed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his political progeny over the course of the past century that was never fully embraced by the majority of the Turkish population. Likewise, the historical ethnic and religious diversity of Syria's geopolitical core created a national identity centered on Damascus that is "Arab" in name only and, as such, in conflict with more traditional-minded Arab Sunni Islamists.

Rather than operating from a foundation born of inherently opposed ideologies (i.e., the West versus Islam), the struggles that are taking place inside both Turkey and Syria today, and which manifested themselves in the rapid deterioration of relations between Erdogan and Assad over the past several years, are derived from the immature national and political constructs that emerged after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire nearly one hundred years ago. What is transpiring today is less a "clash of civilizations" than a consequence of the imperfect births of two nations born of the same parent, separated at birth, and forced to deal with the consequences of their compelled reconciliation.

Under Ataturk, Turkey embraced a policy of "Turkey for Turks", which led to the immigration of many non-Muslim minorities (mainly Christian) from the historically diverse provinces of eastern Turkey. Most of these minorities moved to Syria, where they were assimilated within existing community structures. Even then, Turkey was left with a diverse blend of ethnicities and religions along its border with Syria and Iraq. Syria, whether under French mandate or as an independent nation, has always embraced diversity and secularism in its approach to governance. "Secular", as used in Turkey, implies non-Islamist. In Syria, the term is used to describe ethnic and religious diversity. The difference in how these two nations define the term "secular" underscores their separate approaches toward dealing with issues of demographic diversity.

A policy of "Turkey for Turks" only works in a world where truly homogeneous populations exist. In eastern Turkey, the intermingling of Turks, Kurds and other minorities is a reality that cannot be ignored. The fractures created in similarly diverse territories in northern Iraq and northern Syria with the dissolution of central authority were effectively exploited by the Islamic State. There is a real danger that the Islamic State could exploit similar fractures inside Turkey. This threat is increased when there is an intermingling of ethnic groups across borders, as is the case with the Kurds of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. This is why the battle for Kobani is so important, and it is also why the West's focus on Kobani is misplaced. The Islamic State isn't looking to win a single battle, but rather to create systemic failures within the ranks of those it is confronting. The rupture of relations between Turkey and Syria only plays into the hands of the Islamic State, in so far as it creates more opportunity for the Kurdish issue to create transnational fissures that can be readily exploited.

The split between Recep Erdogan and Bashar al-Assad has only empowered the forces of the Islamic State. The threat founded on the principles of radical Islamic fundamentalism, which could have been dealt with by Syrian authorities, instead had the opportunity to grow and expand in a manner which transformed a localized conflict into regional catastrophe. The fact remains that the government of President Assad represents the only viable option for resolving the challenges posed by the Islamic State. Assad's vision of diverse secularism represents the best hope for holding together the complex web of ethnicities and religions that populate the regions most threatened by the Islamic State.

The United States and Europe have undertaken policies that seek to isolate and eliminate the regime of Bashar al-Assad. They do so in complete ignorance of the historical reality that is at play in the region. The inability and/or unwillingness of the West to recognize this complex reality exposes the intellectual infirmity of much of the ideological framework around which American and European post-9/11 policy has been constructed, and explains, more than anything else, why the strategy that is being employed today to confront the Islamic State will continue to fail. If Turkey wants to take a leadership position in confronting the Islamic State, it needs to liberate its foreign policy from the constraints imposed by any notion of a "clash of civilizations" and stop trying to remove Assad from power. Recognizing that its policies of secular diversity are not that different from those of the Syrian President's, Turkey would need to undertake a new path toward reconciliation with Assad. It is not quite the "Road to Damascus" policy Turkey currently espouses, but it is the only one that has a chance of success.