The US, Turkey, and the Islamic State

by Mohammed A. Salih

When Turkey announced the launch of an “anti-terror” campaign in late July to combat both the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), skeptics were up in arms over the Turkish government’s objectives. They complained that Ankara’s real plan was to bomb the PKK and not IS.

Now, two weeks after the first bombs were dropped, there is little doubt over who the Turkish government’s real enemy is. The figures say it all. According to Turkish government figures, its military has so far launched over a thousand raids on PKK and just three attacks on IS.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is playing a cynical political game. Its electoral support dramatically dropped in the latest parliamentary elections in June. Unable to form a government on its own for the first time since its first victory in 2002, the AKP’s top leaders are likely using war to bring about a climate of heightened nationalistic sentiments and manufactured crisis. Such a political environment may ultimately push voters to support the party in the event of snap elections.

Kurdish Aims

Although the top Turkish enemy for decades, the PKK genuinely supported peace talks in recent years. Hopes were high between 2013 and late June that the century-old Kurdish conundrum in Turkey might be coming to a resolution. In the most recent elections, the pro-Kurdish party HDP, which is seen as close to the PKK, garnered 13 percent of the votes for the first time in the republic’s history.

But it was precisely HDP’s victory that prevented President Recep Tayip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu from gaining the upper hand in Turkey once again. Having lost hope that a peace process with the PKK would win it more Kurdish votes, the AKP government commenced an “anti-terror campaign” directed almost exclusively at the PKK, which it considers a terrorist group.

The PKK might have well facilitated the execution of the AKP’s plans. PKK elements committed a strategic and shortsighted blunder by killing two policemen on July 22, providing Ankara with a ready-made justification for its bombing campaign. The PKK later denied that it was behind the death of the policemen although reportedly it claimed credit for it initially.

Turkey and the Islamic State

The motives and plans of the government in Ankara in its fight against terror are questionable as it tolerated IS as a neighbor for around two years. The jihadist group was suspected of being the culprit behind the massacre of over 30 young people in the town of Suruc in mid-July, and Turkey’s response to it has been quite weak compared to its campaign against the PKK.

The US has been desperate to use the strategic Incirlik airbase near Syria and enlist Turkey in the fight against IS. As such, Washington seems to have endorsed the attacks on the PKK while urging Turkey not to target PKK’s affiliate in northern Syria, known as the PYD.

Many area experts have rightly pointed out that bombing the PKK will only serve IS even if that was not the intention of either the Turkish government or of NATO in supporting Turkey’s campaign. The PKK and the PYD’s military wing, the YPG, have been key players in the fight against IS. Undermining them would ultimately lead to more breathing room for IS, which has been facing an intense and successful campaign from the YPG, aided by some factions of the rebel Free Syrian Army and air support from a US-led international coalition.

The PYD and YPG are heavily reliant on the PKK. It’s not just an ideological affinity between the two groups. Many Kurds from Turkey are participating in the fight against IS in Syria. Some PYD and YPG senior staff were former members of the PKK and its military wing. When I was in Kobani last year at the height of the battle between Kurdish forces and IS, young Kurdish volunteers from Turkey arrived regularly to join the fight against IS. If not for the PKK’s support network and capabilities inside Turkey, this would have not happened.

Although Ankara claims that it is engaged in a fight against terrorism, Turkey’s campaign against IS has yet to materialize. Instead, it has unleashed a full-blown war on PKK that risks further alienating the country’s Kurds.

Instead of urging Turkey to exercise restraint and pursue peace with the Kurds as a strategy and not a mere tactical tool for the AKP’s prolonged rule, the Obama administration appears to have thrown the Kurds under the bus in the hopes of securing Turkey’s cooperation.

This shortsighted endorsement of renewed military assaults on the PKK, which destroys the chances of peace in Turkey, is not just morally wrong. Playing on both sides of the fence—supporting Turkey to fight the PKK and supporting PKK-affiliates to fight IS—can’t be sustained for long and will only undermine the Obama administration’s war against the biggest threat to regional security, which is the Islamic State. Regional stability requires resolving the PKK and Kurdish issue in Turkey while taking on IS, not sacrificing one for another.

Photo: Kurdish demonstrators (courtesy of Montecruz Foto)

Mohammed A. Salih is a journalist based in Iraqi Kurdistan. He is available on Twitter via:

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One Comment

  1. Over the last 5 years, Turkey has shown its total incompetence when it comes to regional problems. It has entered the Arab arena with the hopes of boosting its trade with the Arabs as as Europe’s economy was showing signs of weakness. The other reason was Erdogan’s megalomania boosted by his popularity among the most pious Turks and the ‘miracle’ of the Turkish economy under the AKP.
    Five years later, Turkey is on the path to a shamble.
    Erdogan has become a liability to the country. His resignation may save Turkey from falling back into its dark past of violence and insecurity.
    What will force Erdogan to resign? An eventual coalition with the CHP will change the Constitution to strip Erdogan of some of his presidential powers, when Erdogan has been aiming at getting more. After the disappointing election’s results, that additional humiliation could well trigger his resignation.
    If a coalition does not emerge, a snap election may bring the same situation again and that may also trigger Erdogan’s resignation.
    If the snap election gives back to the AKP a weak majority and thus humiliate the HDP, the country may enter in a period of violence and insecurity where the PKK and ISIS will find a ground for terror attacks .
    It seems Erdogan is trapped now in his own cynical game. His removal is the only way to save Turkey.Will he do it or be forced to?

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