Monday, August 24, 2015

Turkey: The complicated mess of joining the fight against ISIS

Turkish F-16 taking off from Diyarbakir
(July 25, 2015, Image Source)
One of the key criticism against the anti-Islamic State is that the US lacked adequate bases in the theater to carry out effective air strikes against IS. On July 24, Turkey announced it has joined the fight against IS. The development came after a yearlong series of negotiations between the US and the Turkish government to allow the US to utilize airbases inside Turkey to launch attacks in Syria. 

The key hang-up has been diverging security concerns relating to the Syrian civil war. Turkey held that Assad was the chief threat to Turkish national security and Turkey wanted to create a 'no-fly' zone in the northern part of Syria. It was the belief that Assad was the main reason behind the rise of IS. Moreover, Turkey wanted to create an area to funnel Syria refugees to alleviate the economic strain. 

While Turkey agreed to join the fight against the Islamic State, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Northern Iraq faced the initial barrage of air strikes.  The reasons behind Turkey's diverging policy for the region, one has to understand the context of domestic politics in Turkey, and Turkey's relationship with the Kurds in the region. 

On July 20, the Islamic State carried out an attack in Turkey. A large crowd of young people gathered at the cultural center in Suruç to launch an assistance and reconstruction project for Kobani, Syria. The final death toll was around 30. The attack came at a time when the Islamic State has experienced a number of setbacks in their war against the Kurds in the northern region of Syria. Since June, the Kurds and their Syrian Arab allies successfully forced the Islamic State out of Tel Abyad, just east of Kobani. 

The June victory allowed the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) to connect two separate Kurdish enclaves. However, the Turkish government viewed the success as a direct threat to their national security. The only thing left for the PYD to do, is connect another two enclaves and the Kurds would control the entire Turkish border with Syria. 

Moreover, these victories came when the ceasefire with the PKK was already crumbling; the view of the situation was one of suspicion. Turkey feared the US was going to support the creation of a Kurdish State. The only way to preempt this from happening was to work with the US and clear out the southern border to make way for non-extremist Syrians. 

Thus, Turkey began to align more closely with the US. That explains the move to allow the US to operate drones from the NATO-designated military base in Incirlik, not too far removed from the Syrian border. In addition, Turkey began a crackdown on alleged IS cells operating in Turkey and moved to shut down sympathetic websites. 

The Islamic State rebuked these efforts by stating Turkey was 'repressing Muslims.' Moreover, this past Monday, the Islamic State issued a video statement that featured a Turkish-speaking fighter. The individual accused the Turkish President Erdogan of allowing the US to "bombard the people of Islam." The video also called for Muslims in Turkey to fight against the "crusaders, atheists, and tyrants," after calling Erdogan a traitor for allowing the US to use their air bases to carry out attacks inside Syria. 

However, as stated above, Turkey's first air strikes were not against the Islamic State. To understand why Turkey attacked the PKK, the developments of the past year need to be taken into account. Outrage and mistrust increased over the previous year between the Turkish government and the Turkish Kurds. 

On October 2, 2014, the Turkish parliament authorized the deployment of Turkish troops to foreign countries and allowed foreign forces to deploy on Turkish soil. However, Turkey's Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz stated at the time, "don' expect an imminent step after the approval of the authorization request." 

In truth, the announcement served as a deterrent as opposed to a call for action to violate Syria's sovereignty. This much was evident in the authorization itself. The Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated in the authorization that the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was the primary threat to Turkish national security. Similarly, Turkey held concerns over the growing numbers of Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Turkey. Accordingly, Turkey felt this was quickly becoming unsustainable. Thus, Turkey began to advocate for a 'no-fly zone' inside Syria to allow Syrian refugees to return to Syria. 

Nevertheless, Turkey was unwilling to rush to support an action that included attacking the Islamic State without acknowledging the need to remove Assad. A Turkish analyst quoted in the Washington Post explained the authorization as, "Turkey is going to do the bare minimum to get America off its back."  

When pressed to support the war against the Islamic State, Turkey defended its reluctance to attack or support the war against the Islamic State by arguing it needed to protect the lives and families of the 49 Turkish diplomats. The Islamic State kidnaped these diplomats in Mosul after the fall of the city. Eventually, IS released the 49 diplomats after negotiations between the group and Turkey concluded. The immediate outcome after the negotiations was only an increase of anti-IS rhetoric coming out of Ankara. 

However, the Turkish Kurds were growing angry over the apparent inaction of the Turkish government as Kobani came under siege by IS. So much so, that the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan issued a warning to the Turkish government that if they allowed the town of Kobani to fall to IS, there would be a revival of PKK activity in Turkey. 

Cemil Bayki, the top field commander for the PKK and the PYD, echoed Ocalan’s warning. During a November 2014 interview with the Independent, Bayik stated that if Kobani falls or the Jabhat al-Nursa attack, the peace process with the Turkish government will no longer be possible. Bayik, like many Kurds in the region, were beginning to believe the Turkish government had ties with the Jabhat al-Nursa and urged them to attack the Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria. 

Moreover, the attack on Kobani angered more than 15 million Turkish Kurds. Many of the Turkish Kurds believed the Turkish government was providing aid to the Islamic State. Their outrage led to protests against the Turkish government in October 2014, and left 44 people dead. 

There is no love lost between Erdogan, the PKK, the PYD and the Islamic State. In fact, Erdogan proclaimed that ISIS was no worse than the PKK or the PYD. However, despite the rhetoric, the US was able to get Turkey to allow the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga to reinforce the town of Kobani. More importantly, the PKK is considered a terrorist organization according to NATO, the US, and Ankara. 

In addition, Turkey and the PKK have spent nearly four decades fighting each other, before entering into formal peace talks with Abdullah Ocalan in 2012. Ocalan has been in prison since 1999. It was Ankara's hope that the peace talks would bring the decades of fighting to a peaceful end, and help defuse tensions with the PYD. 

Since Turkey joined the fight in Syria, the fight has been rather one-sided. In the recent crackdown against militant groups, Turkey rounded up 1,300 people identified as terrorist suspects, only 137 were linked to the Islamic State while over 847 were linked to the PKK. The air strikes against the PKK singled an end to a two-year cease-fire agreement with the PKK. This has set off a round of protests among the Kurdish militants throughout Turkey. The war against the Islamic State for Turkey has been slow to develop. 

Furthermore, the attacks of both the PKK and IS, came just after Turkey's elections in June. The election dealt a blow to the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). Some analysts have pointed to the poor performance of the AKP at home and in foreign policy. Some of Turkey's commentators have called for a restoration of Turkish foreign policy and closer cooperation with the coalition fighting the Islamic State. Essentially, Erdogan's political party lost majority rule, and led to the success of the Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). 

By bombing the PKK, Erdogan hopes to win back the votes of nationalists opposed to Kurdish autonomy. In response, the PKK has resumed their attacks against Turkish security forces. Erdogan has also stepped up the political rhetoric as a result of the renewed attacks from the PKK by stating, he wants to bury them under 'concrete' and went on to say, "I'm not talking about laying down arms, I'm talking about burying them I'd like to emphasize this." Moreover, Erdogan has also declared the peace process with the PKK as 'on ice.' 

The AKP is relying on the idea that Erdogan can reveal the "true face" of the HDP and secure the necessary votes to eliminate the need for a unity government. The HDP is the political wing of the PKK, though the HDP is not designated as a terrorist organization. Recently, the coalition negotiations between the AKP and the Republican People's Party (CHP) fell apart and have increased the likelihood of early elections this November. 

Current clashes between the Turkish government and the PKK circle around July 20, 2015 as the focal point. On that day, the Islamic State carried out the suicide bombing in Suruç, just across the border from Kobani. In addition to the attacks, the PKK killed a military officer and injured two more soldiers in the southeastern province of Aidyaman. Two days later, the PKK killed two police officers in Ceylanpinar, a town close to Suruç. The PKK claimed the men killed were complicit in the Islamic State suicide attack. Turkey launched a retaliatory attack on the Qandil Mountains in Iraq's Kurdistan Region. The PKK responded by killing 21 Turkish security officers. 

Neither side seems ready to resume an all-out war against each other, as they did in the 1990s. However, the PKK's restraint is likely due to the gains of the HDP in June's elections. The HDP has been able to double its support from 6.5% of the vote in 2011 to over 13% of the vote in June. That translated into 80 seats in the 550-seat legislature, making the HDP the third largest bloc in Turkish politics. If the PKK begins an all-out war, they risk the gains of the Kurdish movement by undermining the HDP. 

Similarly, Edrogan stands ready to benefit should the fighting remain limited. He could put forward the argument that he stood up to the PKK and won. This would play into his hands during the early elections in November. 

The US has gone along with the campaign against the PKK for now in exchange for support against the Islamic State. Though the US will maintain Turkey has the right to defend itself against the PKK, it will more than likely draw the line at going after the PYD in Syria. One of the consequences of this deal is that it could drive a wedge between the PKK and PYD, this is something both Washington and Ankara would like to see happen.