Turkey Bombs Islamic State, But Are Kurds the Real Target?
Critics say the Turkish government’s real goal is to limit the influence of Kurdish groups like the PKK and YPG.
In response to a suicide bombing on July 20 at a cultural center in Suruc in southeastern Turkey and the subsequent shooting of a Turkish soldier, the Turkish military has for the first time struck Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria. In another policy U-turn, Turkey granted the anti-IS coalition access to the Incirlik air base, which is strategically located near the Syrian border. The Turkish foreign ministry described IS as “a primary national security threat for Turkey.” There are now reports that the United States and Turkey are in talks about creating an IS-free zone in northern Syria.
But the airstrikes on July 31 were not limited to hitting the Islamic State’s capabilities. The Turkish air force also extensively targeted the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. These attacks, which were followed by more days of airstrikes, marked the first major escalation between the two sides since a truce was agreed in 2013. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the near-simultaneous airstrikes against IS and the PKK “a synchronized fight against terror.”
Turkey also launched an internal security operation, arresting more than 1,300 people over several days. Government Spokesman Bulent Arinc said that 847 of those arrested were suspected of links to the outlawed PKK, while only 137 were held for ties to IS. Faced with an upswing in Kurdish dissent over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s domestic and foreign policies, Turkey is playing a double game in its response to the latest attacks on its soil.
Turkey’s double play
Turkey has long been accused of turning a blind eye to or even aiding IS by not cracking down on the flow of recruits and weapons across the Turkey-Syria border. Many of those who later joined armed factions in the Syrian Civil War, including IS, made their way through southeastern Turkey, where some border towns became resting areas for those who participated in the fighting. Several reports indicate that IS has been able to build up a recruitment network throughout Turkey. Tension, meanwhile, had arisen between Ankara and Washington over Turkey’s focus on ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which does not align with America’s number one priority of rolling back the Islamic State’s expansion.
Critics now say that Turkey’s offensive against the Islamic State is being used as a cover to stop the advance of Kurdish groups, including the People’s Protection Units (YPG), in Syria and seize the opportunity to attack the PKK, which has been linked to multiple attacks on Turkish security forces in the aftermath of the Suruc bombing. The YPG said that Turkish artillery fire hit a Kurdish-held village, wounding at least four fighters, in Aleppo province. The incident was subsequently confirmed by the UK-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, but later denied by Turkish authorities. The PKK has links to the YPG, which is aligned with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYD).
Davutoglu said that Turkey was prepared to work with the PYD, provided that it did not pose a threat to Turkey, that it cooperated with opposition groups and cut all ties with President Assad. However, Turkey has been wary of the YPG’s expansion and battlefield successes in Syria, fearing that it could eventually lead to the establishment of a Kurdish state in its immediate vicinity.
The YPG is a close ally of the US, which supports its actions with airstrikes. After the group captured the town of Tal Abyad from IS, David Gardner, the international affairs editor of the Financial Times, pointed out that “Ankara did not celebrate but warned Syrian Kurdish fighters against moving any further west”.
Many observers highlighted that Turkey sent many more warplanes to target the PKK than IS. Further complicating the situation is that Kurdish forces, including the YPG and the PKK, have been among the most effective fighting forces on the ground. If they are weakened, this could have negative effects on the battle against IS and could lead to tension between Turkey and the US-led coalition.
A safe zone in Syria?
Alongside reports of the Turkish-American agreement and Turkey’s ostensible new approach to IS, a flurry of reports emerged suggesting that the two countries had also agreed to create a safe zone within northern Syria. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a news conference: “When areas in northern Syria are cleared of the [IS] threat, the safe zones will be formed naturally. We have always defended safe zones and no-fly zones in Syria. People who have been displaced can be placed in those safe zones.”
On July 23, retired US General John Allen, who is in charge of coordinating the anti-IS coalition, said that an “air exclusion zone” would be “part of the conversation” he would have with Turkish officials. The US has so far been reluctant to establish a no-fly zone over parts of Syria to prevent the Syrian air force from striking rebel and civilian targets.
But as Josh Rogin wrote for Bloomberg View, three senior Obama administration officials told reporters in a conference call on July 28 that the US has no plans to establish “a safe zone, a no-fly zone, an air-exclusionary zone, a humanitarian buffer zone or any other protected zone of any kind.” One official said: “What we’re trying to do is clear ISIL [Islamic State]… I think it’s important not to confuse that with staking out these zones that you can identify with road signs and on big maps, and that’s just not what’s happening.” On July 27, a White House official said during a closed-door meeting that there is no safe zone in Syria, according to two people present at the meeting at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
US officials have confirmed that the US and Turkey are aiming to clear IS out of a certain area in Syria, but a key point is whether the area would be protected, for example, by US air cover. The three senior US officials briefing reporters also stressed that no US or Turkish troops would be used to clear the border area of the jihadists, instead saying that “moderate opposition forces” would carry out such an operation, adding that both Ankara and Washington would have to agree on the composition of such a force.
This poses another obstacle, as it is unclear which group or coalition of groups operating in the area would be acceptable to both parties. Kurdish forces are very likely to be ruled out by a Turkish veto. As Phil Stewart and Warren Strobel wrote for Reuters, Turkey would be inclined to worry less than the US about including groups with extremist links or with ambitions to expand the mission to focus on the Assad government. Two powerful groups operating in northern Syria are al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham group.
In this context it is also crucial to remember that US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently confirmed that the US had so far only vetted about 60 Syrian rebel fighters for its training program, far below expectations.
Is it all about politics?
The bombing of the PKK has already had an effect on Turkey, as both President Erdogan and the PKK rendered the peace process that they had started several years ago “impossible” or “meaningless.”
Clashes occurred between protesters demonstrating against Turkey’s IS policies and the stalling of the peace process with the PKK. A continuous targeting of the latter could create further tensions, especially in the Kurdish-majority southeast of the country, which borders Syria.
Critics of President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) policies on IS and the PKK argue that the latest shift has a domestic political dimension at its core. The People’s Democratic Party (HDP) released a statement one day after the start of the air campaign: “This is a plan by the government to set the country on fire in order to secure a single-party government. By creating a militaristic and nationalist climate while pretending to conduct a comprehensive fight with terrorism, the government wants to force snap elections.”
Several days later, HDP chairman Selahattin Demirtas, who sees Turkey’s actions against IS as a cover to target PKK rebels, said the idea of a safe zone was an attempt to prevent Kurds from forming their own territory: “Turkey doesn’t intend to target IS with this safe zone. The Turkish government was seriously disturbed by Kurds trying to create an autonomous state in Syria.”
The pro-Kurdish HDP and several observers have interpreted the government’s targeting of the PKK as a pretext to call for early elections after the AKP lost its parliamentary majority on June 7. According to this argument, Erdogan is trying to gain support from nationalist Turks by using anti-Kurdish sentiment in connection with the PKK, Semih Idiz wrote for Al Monitor. Idiz noted that the president is under pressure from his party to prepare for early elections, as coalition negotiations have not yielded any results so far.
Cengiz Candar, a prominent columnist for the newspaper Radikal, said: “If the AKP government is doing what it has not done for four years and engaging in daylong airstrikes against PKK targets in Iraqi Kurdistan, while announcing that these will continue, one has to be stupid not to realize that the aim is to criminalize the PKK and to marginalize the HDP by forcing it below the electoral threshold.”
Turkey’s stepped up involvement and enhanced cooperation with the US-led coalition could yet prove to be a game changer for the Syrian Civil War. But given Turkey’s simultaneous focus on weakening the PKK, domestic battles, Washington’s partnership with the YPG and potential tensions between the US and Turkey over how to push IS out of parts of northern Syria, it is not clear how much of an immediate impact this will have.
*[This article was originally published by The World Weekly.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.