On July 23, Turkey formally entered the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, granting the United States and its allies access to strategic airbases within its border with Syria and initiating its own air and artillery strikes to secure its southern border. While some have hailed the agreement as a milestone in the effort against ISIS, the Turkish government’s actions over the past month reveal that Turkey’s efforts may be targeted as much at the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) separatist group as at ISIS militants.
Turkey’s increased involvement comes at a time of shifting dynamics in the Middle East; Kurdish groups tied to the PKK have increasingly proven the most effective ground force fighting ISIS, and the United States’ nuclear deal with Iran, finalized in July, may establish the groundwork for gradually normalized relations with the Shiite hegemon. As the geopolitical makeup of the Middle East changes on an almost day-to-day basis, Turkey’s foreign policy, which is often conflicting and driven by internal politics—as it has been especially in its recent effort against the PKK—will likely complicate, rather than enable, regional conflict resolution.
An Evolving Stance on ISIS
Prior to ISIS’s rise to the forefront of international politics in 2014, Turkey’s regional ambitions were fairly clear-cut. In 2011, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan severed diplomatic ties with Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria, citing its use of violence against its own citizens, and directed his country’s foreign policy towards funding Syria’s many disparate militant opposition groups.
But as ISIS has evolved into a ferocious al-Qaeda-inspired jihadist group in control of swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s regional ambitions and alliances have become increasingly blurry. Throughout 2014 and earlier this year, Turkey was not merely reluctant to engage in any open combat with ISIS militants, but actually provided tacit support to the terrorist group by facilitating its recruitment process across the Turkish border and prohibiting its allies in NATO from utilizing strategic airbases along its Southern border.
“It seems likely that Turkey (along with Qatar) has provided support to ISIS. ISIS likely could not have spread so much without Turkey’s implicit support, since the Turks have allowed so many people to cross the borders to fight for ISIS,” described Melani Cammett, a professor of Government at Harvard University, to the HPR.
Turkey had refused explicitly to join the U.S.-led coalition organized to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS,” perhaps because it saw ISIS’s expansion as crucial to its principal foreign policy goals. Turkey’s strict anti-Assad policy stance—Assad heads an Alawite regime inconsistent with Turkey’s Sunni leadership—for instance, engendered its passive support of ISIS.
ISIS’s success also contributed to a weakened Kurdish separatist movement along Turkey’s southern border. Yet the PKK, which has been fighting an on-off insurgency against Turkey for decades, and has broadly come to be regarded as a terrorist organization, is also allied with a number of Syrian Kurdish militias that have been instrumental on-the-ground allies of the United States in its efforts against ISIS.
Turkey thus faced a predicament: “Under the new circumstances, openly supporting ISIS would mean an anti-Kurdish stance that would strengthen and legitimize the Kurdish opposition in Turkey. On the other hand, a Kurdish victory in the region would increase demands or even encourage Kurds in Turkey to follow the same footsteps,” Esra Bakkalbasioglu, a Turkish Ph.D. candidate in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Washington, told the HPR.
Joining the Coalition
On July 20, Turkey’s policy regarding ISIS appeared to shift drastically. On that day, the jihadist group orchestrated a terrorist attack in the Turkish border town of Surac directed at a group of pro-Kurdish activists. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, a series of decisions by former Prime Minister and now President Erdogan suggested Turkey had finally committed itself to beating back the scourge of ISIS. Under his command, the Turkish government conducted a national anti-terror sweep, pledged support for the U.S.-led coalition, initiated airstrikes against ISIS in its occupied territories, authorized the United States to utilize its bases at Incirlik and Diyarbakir, and began negotiating an “ISIS-free” safe zone north of Allepo in Syria.
Given Turkey’s historical reluctance to aid international efforts against ISIS, the United States and its allies in NATO trumpeted Turkey’s agreement to join the coalition as a potential turning point in the fight against the terror group. Yet Turkey’s actions in the aftermath of the agreement have demonstrated that its involvement, at least in the short term, masked its more immediate foreign policy objective: to push back against what it sees as the growing threat of the PKK to its territorial sovereignty.
Just days after committing to the coalition, Erdogan suggested at a NATO summit that the Kurds were at least as big a threat to Turkey and its neighbors in the Middle East as the ISIS militants, implicitly asking NATO to pledge its opposition to both groups. Presidential foreign policy adviser Ibrahim Kalin went so far as to describe ISIS and the PKK as one and the same, citing the groups’ mutual use of terrorism as a means of achieving their political goals. On September 8, the Turkish government even authorized a limited ground campaign in Iraq against the PKK.
Yet current alliances place ISIS and the PKK on opposite ends of the conflict, complicating Turkey’s involvement and relations with members of NATO. As Turkey initiated its airstrikes against ISIS, it also began an equal, if not stronger bombardment of Kurdish strongholds in Iraq. This offensive has threatened the United States’ alliance with the Syrian Kurdish groups, particularly the YPG in Northern Syria. “There is only one group that has consistently and effectively battled ISIS in Syria, and that is the [YPG],” said Redur Khalil, a spokesman for the militia, to the New York Times. “Opening another front in the region—as Turkey has by attacking the [PKK]—will make the forces fighting ISIS weaker,” Khalil said, “which in turn makes ISIS stronger.”
Turkey’s continued prioritization of overrunning the PKK over defeating ISIS may temporarily strain Turkey’s relations with the United States and its allies in the European Union, further setting back the coalition’s agenda. Its bombardment of PKK bases interferes with invaluable real-time intelligence provided by allied Kurdish forces.
Foreign or Domestic Policy?
Turkey’s current foreign policy (particularly with regard to combatting the Kurds) can be largely seen as an extension of Erdogan’s position in the domestic political sphere. “We don’t have too much evidence to say that Erdogan’s decision to join the U.S.-led coalition is due to the fact that he sees ISIS as more credible threat to the Turkish state,” remarked Muharrem Aytug Sasmaz, Turkish Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Government at Harvard, to the HPR. “Some argue that he really just initiated airstrikes to combat the PKK because he believes battling the Kurds would allow his AKP party to gain enough votes to rule in parliament.”
Following a decisive blow to Erdogan’s ruling AKP in June, Turkish domestic parliamentary politics have become increasingly intertwined with foreign relations. Although Erdogan and the AKP—a party with Islamist roots—have ruled in parliament since 2002, they faced a threat during this year’s elections in the form of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The HDP consolidated all former Kurdish political parties under a single branch, and, by winning 13 percent of the vote in June, garnered enough support to push the AKP below the margin necessary to rule in a single-party government.
Erdogan assumed the non-executive role of President following the June elections: according to the Turkish constitution, the president is to have approximately 15 days following the elections to choose a candidate for prime minister, who would proceed to form a government, including, if necessary, a coalition government. If no coalition government is formed, the constitution necessitates a special election. Two months after the AKP suffered its defeat, Erdogan has yet to pick a prime ministerial candidate, and has begun to use Middle Eastern politics as a means of virtually guaranteeing the AKP a majority of seats in a special election: an anti-Kurdish foreign policy enables the AKP to garner seats in Parliament it lost to the HDP in June. Erdogan’s politicking not only undermines the democratic process within Turkey, but also could seriously weaken the coalition’s on-the-ground efforts against ISIS.
Indeed, David Romney, a Ph.D. Candidate in Government and Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University, suggested to the HPR that Turkey and each of the regional superpowers would be more likely to act out of their own desire for regional hegemony than pursue policies and alliances directed at broader conflict resolution.
And Turkey’s agenda, both on the domestic and international policy fronts, has certainly been driven by an attempt to expand its regional influence. Since the Islamist-affiliated AKP government saw in the Arab Spring an opportunity for Turkey to become a regional superpower, it has adopted a policy of vehement opposition toward Assad and support for the ascendance of Islamist democratic parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and a majority of the armed groups in Syria.
New York Times editorialist Eric Edelmen noted how Turkey’s historic anti-Assad policy diverged from that of the United States: “Washington’s policy has been inconsistent and vague, but it always envisioned a post-Assad Syria that would be pluralistic and guarantee minority rights. Turkey recognized early on that Mr. Assad’s brutal policies would lead to radicalization, but the Turkish policy of seeking a Sunni-dominated Syria, governed by forces rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood, has not helped matters.”
Yet, four years later, the Islamist-democracy fervor that pervaded the Arab Spring has largely subsided, and Turkey’s entrance into the fight against ISIS may force it to re-evaluate its foreign policy goals.
From within the murkiness of regional alliances emerges a fairly straightforward reality: a year following the formal establishment of the U.S.-led coalition, ISIS is far from “degraded and destroyed.” Turkey’s increasingly complicated policies, and apparently disparate motives within the region, suggest resolution to the conflict in the greater Levant area will require a more unified and directed effort from all involved parties.
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