North Africa, West Asia

Turkey’s ISIS crisis

PKK has been fighting ferociously against ISIS from day one and is in need of arms and weapons. But it has long since been declared a terrorist organization by many including Turkey, the US, EU and NATO.

Berfu Kiziltan
6 October 2014

Turkish foreign policy under the AKP administration, which was crafted by former minister of foreign affairs and current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, has adopted the philosophy of ‘zero problems with neighbours’ for almost a decade now. However, losing almost all its leverage in the Middle East, including becoming foes with Israel and Syria at the same time, this strategy of a ‘win-win’ foreign policy sounds more like a joke than “eliminating problems from its relations with neighbours”. Ankara has failed both at keeping its former allies and creating new ones.

And yet, currently Turkey risks being sucked into yet more sectarian violence. The Jihadi extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have fought their way to Kobani, a strategically important town in Syria, just a few kilometers from Turkey. ISIS has already been terrorizing the region with mass executions, including beheading the residents, abducting women and girls as sex slaves, and forcing children to fight on their behalf in hundreds of villages. This as might be expected, has put great pressure on Ankara to intervene, leading to a parliamentary vote on Thursday ,October 2 to expand the government’s authority allowing cross-border military operations against ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq. The motion also allows coalition forces to use Turkish territory.

A domestic conundrum

Syrian Kurds have been demanding help from both western powers and Kurds in other regions to fight against the ruthless attacks of ISIS. Meanwhile, Turkey has been accused of turning a blind eye to the conflict and watching events unfold as they sit across the way on the other side of the border. Ankara has also been trying to prohibit Kurds in Turkey from crossing the border and fighting in Syria. This has understandably caused anger and frustration amongst Kurds to swell resentment against the Turkish government and its vague policy with regard to ISIS.

However, the approval of military action by the Turkish parliament has resulted in yet another conflict; both within the parliament and the public. While the main opposition party CHP (Republican People’s Party) accused AKP of going after the Assad regime rather than fighting against ISIS, the pro-Kurdish political party HDP (People’s Democratic Party) opposes the motion in support of CHP’s argument on Assad and adds that if AKP really want to fight ISIS, it should find a way to end jihadist recruitment in Turkey. On this note, Turkish news media reports and government officials state that more than 1,000 Turks have joined ISIS since September.

 "We do not want Kobane to fall. We have opened our arms to our brothers from Kobane,” Davutoglu said in an interview, to assure both the Turkish and Kurdish public that Ankara is willing to fight ISIS. The urgent approval of the motion is also closely related to jailed PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) leader Abdullah Ocalan’s statement saying that peace talks between PKK and the Turkish government would end if the IS militants were allowed to continue their offensive in the pre-dominantly Kurdish town of Kobane.

PKK has been fighting ferociously against ISIS from day one and is in need of arms and weapons. But it has long since been declared a terrorist organization by many including Turkey, the US, EU and NATO.

Although there is a ceasefire agreement in force and an ongoing “peace-process” between the Turkish government and PKK, decades of fighting and deep mistrust between Turkey and its Kurds cannot be overcome in an instant. While Kurds are skeptical of any form of Turkish help, Turkish authorities are gravely worried about arming and giving power to Kurdish rebels who have been fighting against Turkey for an independent Kurdish state for many years.

On the other side of the coin, for many Kurds, Turkey is aiming to keep the ceasefire alive only until the next parliamentary elections for pragmatic reasons, and is therefore trying to gain time by small ‘gestures’ in support of its Kurdish populations’ demands.

In addition to all these tangled demands between groups, there is also the refugee problem that Turkey has been trying to deal with almost by itself. Opening its doors to tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees trying to escape the violence in Kobane, human rights groups estimate that as many as 300,000 people have fled the area, adding to a swelling refugee population in Turkey in excess of 1.3 million. Whether Turkey has the resources to handle millions of refugees on its territory is another question, but it is sure that if Kobane falls, this will aggravate the refugee crisis across the border in Turkey, which will have serious repercussions for the domestic politics of the AKP. 

Multiple actors, multiple agendas, multiple allegiances

In the most volatile region of the world, nations in the Middle East are rapidly losing their grip on non-state actors who are trying to fill the power vacuum. The relationship between Turkey and Syria has steadily deteriorated since the Arab revolts of 2011, and one can argue that since then there has been a constant passive-aggressive fight between former Prime Minister, current President Erdogan and Syrian President Assad, either in the form of formal statements and exchanges or through deals cut with non-state actors.

Adding fuel to the fire, Turkey’s decision to join the fight against ISIS has given way to Syrian accusations against Turkish President Erdogan for turning his country, "into a springboard of aggression against Syria under the false claim of fighting terrorism and protecting Turkey's national security," according to letters from the Foreign and Expatriates Ministry to the United Nations. It is no secret that Turkish President Erdogan wants Assad removed from power and desires a regime change in Syria. However, one might think Erdogan is wise enough not to pursue his obssessive personal vendetta against Assad which could  drag Turkey into a full-blown war.

 When it comes to the international front, so far nearly 40 nations have agreed to fight against ISIS “by any means necessary.” Although the details of which countries are going to fight in this US-led anti-ISIS coalition are yet to be specified, Iran has declared that they reject the US offer of fighting against ISIS for the reason that, “US has bloody hands in this issue.” Meanwhile, as IS militants continue their vicious battle, the coalition forces still fail to show a tangible commitment to fighting against ISIS aside from congratulating Turkey on its decision to use force against the militant group. One thing is for sure and that is that despite coalition air strikes, ISIS has been able to advance on the Syrian border and take control of hundreds of villages within recent weeks.

What’s next?

In sum, if Kobane falls, it will not only give ISIS control of a large stretch of the Turkey-Syria border but will also pose a serious challenge to the Turkish – Kurdish peace process in Turkey. Additionally, Turkey alone does not have the capacity to handle millions of refugees with minimum international support, fight a war against ISIS (and perhaps Syria) and PKK at the same time. There is no doubt that Turkish involvement provides the coalition forces with more room for manoeuvre in the fight against ISIS. However, military action alone will neither solve the problem of Islamic fundamentalism, nor provide sustainable security for the region.

 Whilst the approach of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ may not always be acceptable or advisable, at times of crisis like this, one should pick one’s battles carefully. Besides, if Turkey plays its hand well, this can serve as a historic opportunity to reconcile Turkey with its Kurdish population without encouraging further terrorist activities and an escalation of violence on behalf of the PKK. To achieve this fragile balance can be tricky and yet, not impossible. After all, it is one thing to send troops overseas to fight a war, and another thing to have the war on your doorstep. And for once, this time, Turkey and its Kurds are on the same side.

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