Will Turkey Join the Fight Against ISIS?

  • 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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Several militants associated with the Kurdistan’s Workers’ Party (PKK) attacked a power plant in Turkey, yet another in a series of mutual escalations threatening to shatter the peace talks between the PKK and Turkey’s ruling AK party. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks increasingly focused on Kurdish security threats and the toppling of Syria’s Bashar Assad, despite calls for Ankara to do more to stop the advance of Islamic State (IS) fighters on Kurdish regions on the border. Turkey has long opposed arming the Democratic Union Party (PYD) Kurdish fighters, fearing that doing so would ultimately strengthen the PKK inside Turkey, which is also why it had refused until recently to allow Kurdish fighters from within Turkey to join the fight against IS. Even with Kurdish fighters now making their way to Syria, it is unlikely that Turkey will join a ground war against IS, not least because Erdogan believes Turkey’s greatest challenge is the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad himself.

One of Turkey’s main dailys, Today’s Zaman, reported earlier this week that three PKK militants had been killed as they attacked a power plant in the Turkish town of Kars: “Four PKK members staged an attack at the hydroelectric power plant in the Kağızman district. A clash erupted between them and district gendarmerie forces who had arrived at the plant. The four individuals refused to surrender and opened fire at the gendarmes while attempting to flee by a car. The gendarmerie killed three terrorists and launched an operation in order to capture the fourth….The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., European Union and Turkey.”

The attempted attack comes after news that the negotiations between the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and Turkish officials have reached a standstill. Hurriyet Daily News’ Murat Yetkin believes there are good political and security reasons for the deadlock in talks: “The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) recently made official the two-year-old dialogue with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)….However, speaking during a visit to Latvia yesterday, President Tayyip Erdoğan did not try to be subtle like Davutoğlu. He said it was the PKK and the HDP that could not ‘digest’ the ‘process.’ That is the clearest indication that something is not quite right about Turkey’s Kurdish bid, mainly due to three factors: The first is the Kobani factor….The second factor is the AK Party itself. Giving too much to the PKK might alienate the strong Turkish-Islamic wing in the party ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for June 2015….The third factor is related to the elections….The PKK in Kandil has expressed its worry that the AK Parti is dragging its feet, playing with time until the election and will do nothing after it.”

Meanwhile, on the international front, Turkish officials have been showing considerable recalcitrance in the face of pressure from the Kurds and the U.S., and have refused engaging in the fight just across their border. This, according to Arab Times’ Yousef Awadh Al-Azemi, is exactly what Turkey should be doing, adding that Turkey needs to build bridges with countries in the region: “Undoubtedly, Turkey has been acting appropriately and its self-control, for which it is known, is excellent. The principles of the game might change in the coming days for Turkey to find itself in an embarrassing and complex situation. Therefore, it is important for the country to initiate normalizing relations with nations that are affected financially and politically like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait….Forming a focal point consisting of Ankara, Riyadh, Cairo, United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Kuwait is extremely necessary. Time is like a sword because if you fail to cut it, it cuts you. The West will not leave Turkey alone, so it will continue to persuade the latter. Erdogan might not be able to do tomorrow what he can do today.”

Staff writers for Gulf Daily News have also expressed support for the Turkish argument in favor of removing Assad as a precondition to the resolution of conflict in the region, since “Assad, along with his counterpart in Iraq, has created the IS. As long as the leaders of the two countries are in power, IS will continue to receive new recruits and the brutal conflict will continue. Pundits and political analysts have stressed this issue as a viable option to end the conflict….It seems the U.S. has missed the main ingredient in the Syrian conflict: the removal of Assad….As a result of conflicting U.S. policy towards Syria and Iraq, the situation in both countries is getting worse. It has emboldened the Assad regime while also reigniting anti-American sentiments among youths, who together with several insurgent groups, have joined the IS.”

But Turkey’s policy of non-involvement in Kobane, the embattled Kurdish border town, has been criticized by some as insensitive to the sufferings of the Kurds. But according to Khaleej Times’ Mahir Ali, the international pressure seems to have finally paid off as Turkish officials “announced on Monday, to permit Kurdish fighters to percolate across its border with Syria to aid the defence of Kobani against the ISIS came as something of a surprise, particularly in the wake of renewed conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).After all, Ankara had hitherto resisted pressure to allow such a development, with official spokesmen describing the conflict in Kobani as a tussle between two terrorist groups, ISIS and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish outfit seen as a sister organisation of the PKK….This generosity has been put down to Ankara’s insistence that the most pernicious force operating in Syria is the regime of Bashar Al Assad, which has far more blood on its hands than ISIS. Turkey has consequently been ambivalent about the US-led campaign against ISIS, suggesting that the authorities in Damascus be targeted as well.”

But it would be a mistake to interpret this policy reversal as a sign of greater involvement. For Chris Kilford, a former Canadian defense attaché to Turkey, the reluctance to become more involved comes down to the fact that when it comes to military options, Turkey might have only limited ones: “The truth is that the Turkish military, without extensive preparation, is not able to conduct sustained cross-border operations against a determined opposition such as ISIS. In Turkey’s defense there are not that many militaries that would contemplate going it alone, either. More to the point, a hastily planned unilateral intervention by the Turkish military could be extremely damaging politically if things went wrong….Consequently, it’s difficult to see the Turkish military riding to the rescue for any ethnic group threatened by ISIS in Syria now or in the future.”

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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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