July 2015 marked a dramatic change for the Turkish government when it agreed to join the U.S. led coalition against the Islamic State (IS). For the last few years Ankara had ignored IS seeing the government of Bashar al-Assad as the real threat to the region. Advances by the Kurdish rebels in Syria and a desire to re-align with the Americans led to the reversal in strategy. Turkey is using this to its own advantage however as it is more interested in punishing the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and helping Islamist rebels in Syria than fighting IS.
On July 24, 2016 Turkey agreed to work with the Americans against the Islamic State. Turkey’s Foreign Minister told the press that IS was the “primary national security threat for Turkey,” and Ankara said that U.S. jets could use the Incirlik Air Base to carry out attacks upon IS targets. This came after the militants bombed Suruc in Turkey that left 32 dead and ambushed a Turkish patrol killing one soldier. This was a major change for President Tayyip Erdogan who had done nothing about the Islamic State over the last three years, turning a blind eye to its activities within his country, if not colluding with it. Erdogan saw President Bashar al-Assad as the major problem in the region not IS, and had opposed the Obama administration’s Syrian strategy as a result. Washington had been lobbying Erdogan to change his position, but to no avail. Ankara finally gave in for a number of reasons, and used the IS bombing to unveil its new strategy.
As Professor Henri Barkey pointed out in Foreign Policy, Turkey was afraid it was jeopardizing its relationship with Washington. The U.S. had sent several delegations to get the NATO ally to join the war against the Islamic State, and allow the use of its air bases, but Ankara had turned it down. Not only that, but President Erdogan and Turkish media outlets had constantly criticized America’s Syrian policy. That led President Obama to publicly complained about Turkey’s stance towards IS. Turkey might have felt it had pressed the issue as far as possible, and now it needed to reconcile.
Another issue was that Ankara was concerned about Washington’s alliance with Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG). In October 2014, the U.S. started air strikes to help the Syrian Kurds in Kobani. The Americans then began using YPG units as spotters for air strikes and even invited a PYD official to join its operations room in Irbil. That led people back in the U.S. to declare the PYD as the most effective anti-IS group and lobbied for it to receive aid. The PYD was an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which from the 1980s to 2013 had fought a low level war against the Turkish government. Ankara in turn labeled both the PKK and PYD as terrorist groups. The U.S. support for the PYD was deeply troubling for Pres. Erdogan who attacked their cooperation. By joining the anti-IS war, he hoped to win back Washington, while undermining its relationship with the PYD.
The PYD’s gains in Syria was a third factor. The group had taken over much of northern Syria along the Turkish border. In late 2013 the PYD declared its intentions to turn this area into an autonomous region called Rojava. Pres. Erdogan warned that the PYD’s expansion was Turkey’s number one concern, and called the creation of Rojava a red line. Ankara believed a Kurdish zone in Syria would embolden Turkey’s Kurds and the PKK. With the backing of the U.S. this could lead to further PYD expansion in Syria creating more anxiety back in Ankara.
The last reason why Pres. Erdogan changed his policy was because he wanted to offer more support to Syrian rebels he backs. In May the Islamic State launched an offensive against the Azaz border crossing with Turkey, which was being used by Syrian rebels to bring in weapons, supplies, and fighters. IS was stopped by U.S. air strikes. Ankara was also afraid that its Syrian allies, which include groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, would be pushed out of these border areas by the YPG. By joining the U.S., Pres. Erdogan was hoping that he could provide more direct aid to these groups in the hope that they would overthrow the Assad government.
Since Turkey announced that it was helping the U.S. it said that it wanted to create a safe zone in northwest Syria. This would be approximately 68 miles long along the Syrian-Turkish border. Washington backed this idea because it would include driving the Islamic State out of the area. Erdogan on the other hand, wants to ensure that the rebels he backs can control this area and the important border crossings there. It would also not only split the PYD’s Rojava in two, it would exclude its YPG forces as well. Washington appears to be turning a blind eye to the fact that this zone would empower anti-western Jihadists and weaken the PYD. The Obama administration is probably hoping that it can change Ankara’s stance, as the creation of this zone is a long-term goal.
In the meantime, Ankara has gone after the PKK in Turkey and Iraq. The Turkish government announced that it arrested more than 1,300 people accused of terrorism after the Suruc bombing. 847 of those were linked to the PKK, while only 137 were associated with the Islamic State. Turkey has also launched daily air strikes and artillery barrages on PKK areas of southern Turkey and in Iraq’s Kurdistan. Millet press reported on August 3 that there were 75 bombings of PKK targets and only 3 IS ones. The PKK and Kurdish press said these strikes have killed 16 PKK members, 2 Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) fighters, the PKK’s Iranian affiliate, and 9 civilians, and wounded 13 PKK and 16 civilians. On the other hand, Turkey claimed it killed 260 PKK and wounded another 400 by August 1. On July 27, an Obama administration official blamed the PKK for these attacks, because it killed two Turkish policemen it accused of collaborating with IS on the Suruc bombing. Likewise, on July 28 Turkey called an emergency meeting of NATO, which also endorsed Turkey’s new campaign. Its targeting shows that Ankara’s main goal is the weakening of the PKK and PYD. As part of its deal with Washington, Pres. Erdogan cannot bomb the PYD, but it can go after its brethren the PKK. That way he hopes to apply pressure on the Syrian Kurds. As Dr. Neil Quilliam and Jonathan Friedman mentioned in an article for Chatham House, Turkey is not opposed to Kurdish autonomy in principle. It has forged a very close relationship with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq, which talks about Kurdish independence all the time, and spurred Kurdistan’s economic growth by allowing it to build its own pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. What Erdogan would like is to become the hegemon of the Kurds. The Kurdistan Regional Government for example, has become almost completely dependent upon Turkey economically via its pipeline. Turkey’s new attacks are likely focused upon the same goal to punish the PKK into submission, and in turn get it to limit the PYD’s expansion in Syria.
Turkey is using the U.S. to further its own goals vis a vis the Syrian rebels and PKK-PYD. Ankara wants to increase its support for the Syrian rebels, who it hopes will overthrow Pres. Assad, cajole the Syrian and Turkish Kurds into being pliant clients, while regaining the Obama administration’s favor. Washington on the other hand, believes that it can temper Pres. Erdogan’s goals over the long term, while using Turkish bases to hit IS in the short run. That seems like wishful thinking on America’s part as Turkey has always followed its own path. President Obama only has a little more than a year in office, and the next administration will likely have a different approach to the Islamic State, Syria, and Iraq. The Turkish government can wait this out, and work on its own goals at the same time making Obama’s strategy and the PKK-PYD the losers.
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Barnard, Anne, “Turkey’s Focus on Crushing Kurdish Separatists Complicates the Fight Against ISIS,” New York Times, 7/28/15
BBC, “Iraqi Kurds warn PKK amid Turkey air strikes,” 8/1/15
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- “President Barzani Slams PYD in Syria, Rejects Autonomy Declaration,” 11/14/13
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- “Turkish shelling injures Kurdish civilians,” 7/25/15
Sly, Liz, “Turkey strikes Kurdish militants in Iraq, ends truce of more than 2 years,” Washington Post, 7/25/15
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