Turkey Strikes ISIS, Kurds

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East Policy Council

Turkey has joined the war against the Islamic State. Following a brazen and bloody suicide attack against local activists, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to respond decisively and with military force. Now, with the political support of its NATO allies and some of its neighbors, the Turkish military is making good on that promise. But Mr. Erdogan appears to be taking full advantage of the current violence and instability to take on not only ISIS, but also the Kurds, who, despite being among the most skilled and firm foes of ISIS, have borne the brunt of the Turkish assault. The public response has been for the most part negative, with many Turkish citizens especially disapproving of the military assaults against the Kurds on both sides of the border. Some regional observers have disapproved of the opening of yet another military front, although the strategy has received some support from some of Turkey’s regional allies, in particular Saudi Arabia.

In a recent editorial, the Gulf Times staff highlights Turkey’s new strategic agreement with the United States and suggests that Mr. Erodagan’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) declining electoral fortunes might be behind the president’s belligerent rhetoric and actions: “The United States and Turkey reached a strategic agreement yesterday that has the potential to end the stranglehold of the IS terror group on parts of northern Syria….Turkey has since launched airstrikes on IS positions, much to the relief of the U.S. and other Western powers who were critical of Ankara’s ambivalence on the issue because of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) domestic compulsions. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has strong Islamist leanings, wants to score points with voters after its disappointing performance in June 7 polls and also prevent Kurds gaining a strong foothold in Syria. His party is also bitterly opposed to the Kurdistan workers Party (PKK) who have been long engaged in a struggle for freedom in the country’s southeast. With the Syrian Kurds also fighting IS, the region has become a complex theatre of war.”

A recent domestic poll, however, shows very little appetite among the Turkish citizens for a military involvement in Syria, with Özer Sencar pointing out in a report for the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman that “Although the government has been keeping possible intervention in Syria on the agenda for a long time, only 39 percent of its voters lend support to the idea and only 21 percent of MHP voters — who believe an operation should prioritize targeting the Kurds along the border — support it….Thirty-two percent of voters support the idea of Turkey’s occupying part of Syrian territory along the border and creating a buffer zone in this area. Sixty-five percent oppose this plan. In short, it is clear that Turkish people do not endorse any war in Syria or the plan to create a buffer zone there. Therefore, it is very likely that voters would punish the implementers and supporters of the existing Syria policy in a potential early election. Politicians should take this possibility into consideration.”

More worryingly for Mr. Erdogan, some within Turkey, including Haluk Özdalga, blame the AKP for the current failed policy toward ISIS and the Kurds: “The massacre of 32 young people in the southeastern town of Suruç, followed by the killing of several soldiers and police officers and the termination of the cease-fire in the Kurdish peace process may be the ominous harbingers of frightful days to come. Now, there is the serious likelihood of our metropolitan cities and touristic centers being targets for new and bloody sabotage attacks. A civil war in the East and Southeast may be around the corner, and this time, the risk is that it probably won’t be low-intensity. The one who bears primary responsibility for this gloomy picture is the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has made several grave errors regarding the Syrian crisis and the Kurdish issue and which, appallingly, has failed to achieve any of its policy targets regarding these two critical issues.”

The targeting of Kurdish fighters on both sides of the border by Turkish military forces has done nothing to allay fears that the Erdogan’s real target is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rather than ISIS. In fact, in an op-ed for the Jordan Times, Amer Al Sabaileh argues that while “many factors could have possibly pushed Turkey to finally take this initiative, such as the international pressure on Ankara due to its ambiguous position towards the terrorist groups fighting in Syria…the major reason behind the Turkish intervention might be related to Ankara’s goal to eliminate any possibility of establishing a Kurdish state and this can be achieved by launching war against Daesh and the PKK….Nevertheless, the security consequences of the Turkish move will increase the risk level for the internal Turkish scene, not only from Daesh but also from the PKK that is involved in fighting the terror group and at the same time has a wide network inside Turkey.”

Hurriyet Daily News’ Nuray Mert makes a similar argument, bemoaning the fact that “Turkey’s ‘struggle with ISIL’ has turned out to be an armed struggle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a domestic offensive against the Kurdish party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a general witch hunt against dissent and finally a search for a homeland for Turkmens in northern Syria….What we see is not much a struggle with ISIL, but a grand offensive against dissent along with regression to armed confrontation with the PKK and the consequent politics of war. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu makes calls for people to ‘kill and die for the motherland’, refers to power, the will and finally ‘the omnipotence of the state’. Under the circumstances, we have started to regret that our government joined ‘the fight with ISIL’; perhaps we would have been better off without “the struggle with ISIL,” which is not a “struggle with terror,” but has become a very useful tool to terrorize the whole country.”

Others, though sympathetic of Turkey’s grievances vis-à-vis the Kurds, believe that Turkey is making a strategic mistake targeting both ISIS and the PKK. For example, the Saudi Gazette editorial urges the Turkish government to negotiate a quick ceasefire with the Kurds so it can concentrate its efforts against ISIS: “Turkey rarely does anything by halves, and this includes mistakes….The Turkish government, fronted by Premier Ahmed Davutoglu but in reality led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has chosen to start two separate battles at the very same moment…. It was one of Erdogan’s significant early achievements when he became prime minister a decade ago, that he effectively made peace with the rebellious Kurds, granting them long-denied minority rights, including the teaching of their own language and political freedoms….The PKK attack on the army convoy was a cunning provocation, which succeeded in spades. Instead of using them as allies Turkey is now embarked on a conflict with the Kurds, as well as the terrorists of Daesh….Unless the government rows back quickly and cuts a new ceasefire with the PKK, it is faced with a war on two fronts. It knows how tough it is to beat the Kurds. It has just made it even tougher adding Daesh at the same time.”

But not everyone is opposed to Turkey’s two-pronged strategy. In fact, unlike the Saudi Gazette editorial, the other Saudi daily, Arab News, expresses its full-hearted support for Turkey’s military strategy, while putting the burden on the Kurds for the pursuit of a peaceful negotiation: “Turkey’s airstrikes against the terrorists of Daesh has been decisive and by many accounts devastating. It mirrors the operation against terrorists in Yemen led by the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia has backed Turkey’s action….Erdogan’s more pressing concern has to be that the PKK is trying to take advantage of the emergency created by Daesh. It would be nonsensical to fight one terrorist menace while leaving another free to operate at will. Indeed from a strategic point of view this would be madness. In the face of massive Turkish airstrikes, the ideal outcome would be for the PKK to realize their error and resume the cease-fire and the talks.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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