Turkey joined the fight against Islamic State, but not for the reasons you think
After months of wavering, Turkey agreed on July 23 to partner with the United States in launching joint air strikes against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. However, soon after pounding Islamic State positions in Syria, Ankara quickly turned its attention to strike at the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq, whose Syrian wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) is a key U.S. ally against Islamic State.
The decision to strike against the PKK was made with the aim of advancing Turkey’s governing AK Party’s political position ahead of early parliamentary elections. But it will be a pyrrhic victory: Syria’s problems will continue to spill over Turkey’s borders, making a solution to the conflict ever more elusive.
Conflict at home
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still smarting from June’s parliamentary elections. The vote saw Erdogan’s allies in parliament, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), lose its majority for the first time more than a decade. A surge in ethnic-Turkish support enabled the pro-PKK Peoples’ Democracy Party (HD Party) to secure the 10 percent threshold required to enter parliament for the first time, on a package offering an inclusive, pro-peace platform that attracted tactical, anti-Erdogan voters.
Yet the HD Party’s win was possible only because Erdogan had spent the past three years negotiating a peace with the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The resulting lull in Kurdish violence helped to detoxify the HD Party’s brand, previously seen as a political front for separatist militants. Weakened and feeling betrayed, Erdogan has since June moved to undermine the HD Party by antagonizing the PKK at home and abroad. Moreover, he has done little to prevent Islamic State attacks on PKK supporters in Turkey, while further denouncing peace talks with the group. These measures have been effective at isolating the HD Party’s pro-peace leader, Selahattin Demirtas, cutting off ethnic Turkish support from the party in advance of early elections.
The Islamic State suicide bombing on July 20 in the Turkish border town of Suruc has given a boon to Erdogan’s strategy.
The PKK viewed Turkey’s security services as negligent at best, and at worst complicit, in the attack, which killed 32 pro-PKK activists. The rationale for that belief is that some Kurds with links to the PKK had been blocked by the police from entering the cultural center where the attack took place, while a suicide bomber was able to get through.
Kurdish militants responded by killing Turkish police and instigating civil unrest throughout Turkey’s mostly Kurdish southeast. Meanwhile, ethnic Turks panicked about deteriorating security in the country. By inviting the United States to use Turkish airbases to attack Islamic State (a significant U-turn in policy), Erdogan has assured domestic voters that he is securing the country against the Islamist terrorist threat, while giving himself cover to further weaken the Kurdish nationalist camp before elections.
The full details of the U.S.-Turkey deal will become clear in the coming weeks. In some form, Ankara will have oversight over U.S. targets: strikes that help the YPG link its territories along Syria’s border with Turkey will be vetoed. This will block the PKK from establishing a Kurdish regional government in Syria to mirror the Kurdish statelet in Iraq. In the eyes of Turkey’s security services, this is a red line: a ring of PKK-controlled territory in Syria would encourage separatism in Turkey and weaken Ankara’s ability to control the PKK. Therefore, as argued in a new Chatham House paper, Turkey will play a major role in determining the future of the Kurds and their campaigns in Syria.
However, combatting Islamic State in Syria will prove near impossible without the cooperation of the PKK and YPG. Pro-PKK militants in Syria currently provide targeting information for U.S. air strikes on Islamic State. Without other reliable sources of human intelligence in the country there are few alternatives to this arrangement. Similarly, the PKK has provided the ground forces to take territory abandoned by Islamic State in the wake of strikes. Absent such support, air strikes can have little sustained effect.
The focus on Islamic State and PKK will distract both Turkey and the West from pursuing their long-term interests: ending the Syrian conflict. Any stable endgame for the country will almost certainly need to include a devolved Kurdish region. But the recent intervention will only delay that eventuality. Doubting whether the United States is a reliable partner, the PKK will keep its ties to Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers. A post-Assad settlement, therefore, will become even more distant.
The United States sees Syria as a source of Islamist terrorism, threatening the Middle East’s stability and the safety of Westerners. Turkey, in contrast, is more fearful of the country becoming a vehicle for Kurdish expansionism. As the anti-Islamic State coalition intervenes more deeply in Syria, its members will find themselves increasingly at cross-purposes. This makes agreeing on a roadmap for ending the conflict more urgent than ever. Without it, the coalition’s intervention in Syria threatens to weaken Islamic State at the expense of prolonging the wider Syria conflict.