Turkey Joins Fight Against Islamic State, but Targets Kurds
Frida Ghitis |Thursday, July 30, 2015
When Turkey announced it had decided to join the war against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria, it seemed like a major turning point in the fight against the radical Islamist group. But the actions Ankara has taken in the week since its policy reversal raise serious questions about its true intentions.
|Turkish soldiers patrol near the border with Syria, outside the village of Elbeyli, |
east of the town of Kilis, southeastern Turkey, July 24, 2015
Twin security operations, combining domestic sweeps with cross-border airstrikes, strongly suggest that the impetus behind the new policy has more to do with pushing back against Kurdish groups than against IS.
The government’s domestic anti-terrorist campaign has targeted Kurdish activists more than IS members. Similarly, the airstrikes, welcomed in the West as a needed shoring up of the anti-IS coalition, have been targeted more heavily against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish militia based in northern Iraq.
The Kurds, who have struggled as a minority scattered mostly in Iraq, Turkey, Syrian and Iran, are openly questioning whether they have been betrayed, wondering what exactly transpired during the telephone conversation between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Barack Obama that preceded the start of Turkey’s new campaign.
Turkey’s policy shift unfolded in the aftermath of a July 20 terrorist bombing that killed 32 people in the town of Suruc, just across from the Syrian border. Authorities blamed IS, but the rumor mill went into overdrive, with accusations that the government had orchestrated the plot as part of a larger strategy. The suicide attacker, later identified as an IS member, targeted a group of students who were gathering supplies to donate to Kobani, the iconic Syrian Kurdish town freed from IS by Kurdish fighters, mostly from Syria, with U.S. air support.
Until the attack, Turkey had resisted pressure to join the coalition fighting IS.
Ankara has two overarching goals: preventing Kurdish empowerment, which could stir up separatist elements inside Turkey’s Kurdish community, and helping bring an end to Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria. Arguably, fighting IS would go against both of those objectives.
But now that IS has carried out bombings inside Turkey, allowing the group to remain on the Turkish border is much too risky. Besides, the turmoil in Syria has caused a flood of refugees to pour into Turkey, adding huge expenses and threatening stability.
Shortly after the Suruc bombing, Kurdish radicals from the PKK killed two Turkish police officers, calling it retaliation for the Suruc blast. Attacks and counterattacks between the outlawed PKK and Turkish security forces quickly escalated. Two days later, Erdogan was on the phone with Obama, discussing the details of a new policy: After months of resisting NATO requests, Turkey would allow U.S. planes to start using the Incirlik base to hit IS targets. And Turkey would join in the campaign.
The U.S. promptly took advantage of the ideally located base, and Turkey, too, started airstrikes.
But Turkish bombers started hitting Kurdish targets in northern Iraq, even as Turkish artillery struck some of the Syrian Kurdish forces that have been working hand in glove with the U.S. to dislodge IS.
The Kurds cried foul, wondering if Obama had made a deal with Erdogan, sacrificing the Kurds in exchange for Turkish cooperation and access to Incirlik.
The U.S. denied it has green-lighted Ankara’s attacks. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the timing of Turkish strikes against Kurds in Iraq at the moment of renewed cooperation with Washington on IS is “coincidental.”
Besides, he noted, Turkey struck the PKK, which is classified as a terrorist organization even by the U.S. And Turkey, said Kirby, has a right to defend itself. (Erdogan says the peace process between the government and the PKK is now over.)
But, highlighting just how confusing and even contradictory the situation is, Kirby said that America’s access to bases on Turkish territory will help its air support for other anti-IS forces, including the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), itself closely tied to the PKK.
The YPG’s highly effective male and female fighting forces have spearheaded practically every successful anti-IS operation in Syria. They have been Washington’s indispensable ally. And they, too, say Turkey has been targeting their forces with artillery strikes.
Turkish officials claim they have not targeted the YPG, but the Kurdish fighters insist it keeps happening. Most recently, the YPG accused Turkey of shelling its positions near the IS-held town of Jarablus. In other words, the Kurds say, they are fighting against IS while coming under fire from Turkey.
Meanwhile on the domestic front, Turkish security forces have launched what it calls an anti-terrorist operation, arresting more than 1,000 people. Authorities claim those detained are suspected Islamists. But local media report that the majority are not Islamists but Kurds and leftists.
The evidence indicates that there is more to Turkey’s decision to go after IS than meets the eye.
It is reasonable to believe that Erdogan and his prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, genuinely want to push IS away from the border. Ankara convened a rare NATO meeting, where it secured condemnation against terrorist attacks on Turkey, and it is working on plans to create an “IS-free” area along the Syria-Turkey frontier that would stem the flow of refugees and keep the fighting farther away. Ankara’s call for a no-fly zone is still being rejected by Washington.
At the same time, Ankara wants to prevent the Kurds, including the YPG, from gaining from the Islamic State’s losses. Instead, it wants non-Kurdish Syrian rebels to seize the territory from which IS is driven out.
Erdogan is using the cover of the new campaign to push back against Kurds, who have become emboldened with their battleground victories in Syria and their newfound political muscle in Turkey’s recent elections.
Erdogan’s harshest critics look at the results of the June elections and suspect there is even more to the current strategy.
Erdogan’s ruling AKP party failed to win an outright majority at the polls, losing ground to the Kurdish-led HDP. Davotoglu is now trying to form a coalition. If he fails, new elections will be called.
Some Kurdish leaders fear that Erdogan’s new campaigns are aimed at stoking nationalist feelings with an eye toward securing an outright victory in the next elections, which could come soon. It may be worse than that. Erdogan has suggested that HDP deputies could be sent to prison as terrorists.
Erdogan’s plan all along had been to secure a strong AKP legislative majority so that the parliament would approve a constitutional reform creating a strong presidential system with him at the helm. That plan was thwarted by voters. The reversal on IS could breathe new life into that plan.
As the saying goes, all politics is local. And that may well be the crux of Turkey’s decision to join the fight against IS.
Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.