Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Talking Turkey: Was Turkey’s assault on ISIS a pretext to attack the Kurds?

YOU ARE IN: Home Page

Turkey has finally joined the fight against ISIS.  On July 24 Turkey sent fighter jets into Syria to attack ISIS targets, and it also agreed to allow the US and other allies to use Incirlik in southern Turkey as a base to carry out operations against ISIS. It should have been a welcome development but on the same day Turkey also attacked the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in northern Iraq.  Since then, Turkey has reportedly carried out hundreds of attacks on PKK targets and has killed around 260 Kurdish fighters.  Many are now asking, was Turkey's agreement to fight ISIS merely a pretext for attacking the Kurds?

Since 1984, the PKK has been fighting the Turkish government for an autonomous homeland for the Kurds.  More than 40,000 people have died in the conflict, which reached a peak in the mid-1990s.  In 2012 a ceasefire agreement was signed between Turkey and the PKK but it has been left in tatters following a wave of recent attacks on both sides.  Turkey's focus on the PKK comes at a time when the West appears to be warming to the Kurds who have proven an effective force in fighting ISIS, taking control of Turkish border towns in Syria.  

Until now Turkey had been reluctant to fight ISIS, perhaps in its eagerness to watch the Assad regime fall.  It has been accused of secretly supporting ISIS by enabling foreign fighters, weapons and cheap oil to cross Turkey's border into Syria. In addition it was reported that a US-led raid on the compound housing ISIS' ‘chief financial officer' produced evidence that Turkish officials dealt directly with ranking ISIS members.

But Turkey's position on ISIS shifted following an attack by a suspected ISIS suicide bomber that killed 32 people, many of them Kurdish peace activists, in the Turkish town of Suruc on July 20.  On July 22, the PKK claimed responsibility for the killing of two Turkish policemen in the border town of Ceylanpinar in revenge for the Suruc massacre, and there have been more PKK attacks on Turkish targets in recent weeks. Protests also erupted in Turkey, which condemned the government for enabling ISIS to operate freely.

Turkey has now arrested around 600 extremists, but its delayed reaction to the threat of ISIS may have enabled a "monster" to grow inside its own borders.  As Natasha Bertrand discusses in Business Insider:

"Ankara officially ended its loose border policy last year, but not before its southern frontier became a transit point for cheap oil, weapons, foreign fighters, and pillaged antiquities.  In November, a former ISIS member told Newsweek that the group was essentially given free reign by Turkey's army.
‘ISIS commanders told us to fear nothing at all because there was full cooperation with the Turks,' the fighter said. ‘ISIS saw the Turkish army as its ally especially when it came to attacking the Kurds in Syria.'
But as the alleged arrangements progressed, Turkey allowed the group to establish a major presence within the country - and created a huge problem for itself.
‘The longer this has persisted, the more difficult it has become for the Turks to crack down [on ISIS] because there is the risk of a counter strike, of blowback,' Jonathan Schanzer, a former counterterrorism analyst for the US Treasury Department, explained to Business Insider in November.
‘You have a lot of people now that are invested in the business of extremism in Turkey,' Schanzer added. ‘If you start to challenge that, it raises significant questions of whether' the militants, their benefactors, and other war profiteers would tolerate the crackdown.
A Western diplomat, speaking to the Wall Street Journal in February, expressed a similar sentiment: ‘Turkey is trapped now - it created a monster and doesn't know how to deal with it.'"

The US has long sought Turkey's assistance to counter ISIS and as a result, it now appears to be either privately endorsing or turning a blind eye to the attacks on the PKK, even though the Kurds in Iraq and Syria have been leading the fight against ISIS. Relations between the US and the Kurds also appeared to be warming as the US military frequently cites Kurdish forces as a model of success in the campaign against ISIS.  

The US distinguishes between Kurdish groups - it considers the PKK, which is comprised of Turkish Kurds based in Iraq, to be a terrorist group. Meanwhile, the US views the YPG (Kurds in Syria) as an important force for the US-led alliance against ISIS because it has been the only effective partner so far on the ground working with the coalition, and has supported it with airstrikes.  Yet these distinctions are not so clear cut - the YPG is aligned with the PYD (Democratic Unity Party), which is linked to the PKK, and these groups are distinguished from Kurdish Iraqis - but all these groups are fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Brendan O'Neil was scathing of the West's wilful blindness to Turkey's attack on the Kurds, writing in the Telegraph:

"Stabs in the back don't get much nastier than this.  For the past year, Western leaders have feted the Kurds of Northern Iraq, praising them as one of the few forces gutsy enough to face down the death cult of Isil. Now, those leaders turn a blind eye, or even worse give an active nod, to attacks on Northern Iraqi Kurds by the Turkish air force.  Heroes one minute; fair game for massacre the next. In the long list of Western betrayals of former allies overseas, this one feels especially grotesque...

whatever you think of the PKK - whether you agree with Western capitals that brand it terroristic or with Kurds who think it's a legit army - there's simply no comparison between these Left-wing militants and the Islamic forces currently plundering, statue-smashing and beheading their way through Syria and Iraq."

Moreover, the YPG has also claimed to have been attacked by Turkish forces. Reuters reported:

"Kurdish militia fighting Islamic State in Syria accused Turkey on Saturday of targeting it at least four times in the past week, calling the attacks provocative and hostile... Turkey's foreign ministry said the allegations would be investigated in a joint inquiry with the government of Iraq's Kurdistan. ‘It is known that there are no civilians in the Zargala terrorist camp but senior PKK members were present during the air strikes,' the ministry said in a statement. ‘Meanwhile it is a fact that the terrorist organization unfortunately uses civilians as human shields,' it said."

The Western response to Turkey's assault on the Kurds has been a mere whisper. The US and NATO backed Turkey's right to self-defence against the PKK but urged Turkey to act with restraint.  US President Barack Obama's deputy envoy to the international coalition battling the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, commented in a tweet, "There is no connection between these airstrikes against PKK and recent understandings to intensify US-Turkey cooperation against #ISIL".

Some speculate that Turkey's attack on the Kurds may be motivated by the potential looming election, as Bulent Aliriza of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) explains:

"Turkey has been in post-election limbo since the June 7 elections which denied the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a parliamentary majority. In the absence of an agreement on a coalition government, decisions are being made by Erdogan and, to a lesser extent, the caretaker government led by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Erdogan's opponents, especially the predominantly Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), which has been constantly vilified by Erdogan and the AKP for months for its alleged association with the PKK, have been raising questions about whether the shift last week was designed to create the right kind of political environment to allow the AKP to regain sole power in early elections in November."

Plans are now being drawn up between the US and Turkey to establish an ISIS-free "safe zone" on Syria's northern border to allow for the training of forces and refugees. However, the establishment of this "safe zone" has been greeted with scepticism - viewed by some as a way to stop an independent Kurdish state, particularly as the YPG has taken control of towns along the Turkish border while fighting ISIS.

Selahattin Demirtas, who leads the HDP (People's Democratic Party), a pro-Kurdish political party in Turkey, told the BBC that Turkey's real intention was to make an incursion into Kurdish areas in Syria to stop Syrian Kurds from controlling contiguous territory.  Demirtas said, "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," adding "So, the safe zone is intended to stop the Kurds, not IS. In fact, Turkey should work with Kurdish forces to create this area. They should collaborate."

While the West needs the support of Turkey to effectively fight ISIS - especially in stopping the flow of foreign fighters and weapons from Turkey into Syria, Turkey's motivation and its interests must be treated with scepticism.  For the past year it has avoided joining the effort against ISIS and now that it has joined, its focus appears to be its assault on the Kurds, not ISIS.  The Kurds in Iraq and Syria have proven to be a formidable force against ISIS, perhaps the only effective force.  For the West to abandon the Kurds now in exchange for possibly half-hearted or ineffective help from Turkey would appear to be a serious mistake.

Sharyn Mittelman