Turkey attacks the Kurds and the Islamic State
By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
The Turkish military campaign against the Islamic State (IS) and the Kurdish Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which began in the last days of July 2015, fuel suspicions as to the real motives behind the sudden involvement of Turkey in a conflict it carefully managed to distance itself from for more than four years. As a matter of curious coincidence, the Turkish military campaign began three weeks after the Egyptian military revealed on July 8, 2015 that it had captured Turkish intelligence officers who were actively involved in the guerrilla war waged by the Islamic State in Sinai and inside Egypt itself against the Sisi regime. Four days later, on July 12, the Egyptian military spokesman announced the uncovering of a "terrorist cell" whose instructions were given by the Muslim Brotherhood headquartered in Turkey and whose mission was to destabilize Egypt.
According to Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the immediate reason given by the Turks behind the unleashing of their military air power was "a synchronized fight against terror." In fact, it began as retaliation against Kurdish terrorist acts against police and army forces and against the IS. The Islamic State was responsible for attacking Turkish outposts in the area and for the suicide bombing perpetrated on July 20, 2015 in the Amara Cultural Center at the Turkish border town of Suruc by an 18-year old member of the IS, which caused 32 deaths and more than 100 injuries, all of whom were Turks of Kurdish descent, and the attack on July 23 by the IS of a Turkish border post near Kilis.
Interesting enough, though previous incidents such as the 2013 Reyhanlı bombings, the 2015 Istanbul suicide bombing, and the 2015 Diyarbakır rally bombings were presumably carried out by IS deep inside Turkish sovereign territory– as well as suicide car attacks carried out by the IS against the Kurdish city of Kobane a month ago using Turkish territory in order to attack the Kurds from their rear– none of these provoked any military response from the Turks. The only reaction was (at the time ) a denial of accusations that the IS had used Turkish territory to enter Kobane from the Turkish border.
There is no doubt that the PKK's reaction to the bomb attack in Suruc served as a catalyst for the Turkish decision makers, since the PKK admitted to killing two Turkish police officers in the city of Celanpinar on July 22. According to the PKK, the officers had collaborated with the IS in the suicide bombing in Suruc.
However, following the first aerial attacks by the Turkish Air Force on July 24, 2015 (the first against the PKK since a 2013 truce ended a two-year ceasefire), the Turkish government ordered a crackdown on IS and Kurdish militants all over Turkey. After years of condoning the activities carried out on Turkish soil by the IS and other jihadist organizations, partly with the collaboration of Turkey intelligence agencies, the Turkish police force of 5,000 deployed in the operation was very quick to arrest more than a thousand activists and militants all over the country (Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and in Sanliurfa province, near the Syrian border) in less than 24 hours.
It appeared that out of the 1,302 people arrested, in what officials have described as a "full-fledged battle against terrorist groups" in recent days, 847 were accused of links to the PKK and just 137 to Islamic State, government spokesman Bulent Arinc said. Members of the youth wing of the outlawed PKK and a far left group, the Marxist Revolutionary People's Liberation Party Front (DHKP-C) were also arrested. Turkey has also stated that its operations against the IS in Syria will not include air cover for Kurdish fighters battling the jihadists.
Since July 25, The Turkish effort against the IS and the PKK is no longer confined to Syria nor to the vicinity of the Syrian-Turkish border. The Turkish Air Force has turned its fire mainly against Kurdish PKK militants in Northern Iraq and PKK shelters, bunkers, and storage facilities in the Qandil Mountains where the PKK high command is based. The air strikes came just hours after Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan said that a peace process had become impossible with the Kurds.
In another unexplained volte-face, President Erdogan agreed following a phone conversation with President Obama to allow the U.S. to use the Turkish airbase of Incirlik (after having opposed the move since summer 2014 when the U.S. began its air operations against the IS in Syria and Iraq). According to some sources, it seems that the Turkish decision was the result of months of negotiations held between Washington and Ankara. General John Allen, the U.S. representative for the anti-IS coalition, paid several visits to Turkey, and it was agreed that the deal between the two consisted of a recognition by Washington of a no-fly area to be implemented inside an area of western Syria bordering Turkey in return for Turkey's acquiescence to allow the U.S. the use of the Incirlik air base in its campaign against the IS. Washington reportedly considered the principle of a "buffer zone" — a "safe zone," a term used by Turkish officials.
According to the Washington Post , the discussions between the U.S. and Turkey include a plan to drive the IS militants from a 68 mile stretch west of the Euphrates River. In parallel, Turkey called for an emergency meeting of NATO (of which it is a member) in order to get the political support it needs in its stance against the IS and the PKK. The Turkish request was based on Article 4 of the organization's founding treaty, which allows members to request such an urgent meeting if their territorial integrity or security is threatened.
However, the Turks seem to have insisted that strikes against the IS targets would go in parallel with those against the PKK. The bombing in Suruc was but a catalyst that sped the deal on both sides.
Concerned by the renewed Turkish military campaign against the PKK , the leader of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition, People's Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtash, accused Erdogan of launching airstrikes on Kurdish targets in order to prevent the Kurds from unifying areas they control in Syria and the formation of a Kurdish entity in Northern Syria. Demirtas said that Turkey was in fact using the war against the IS as a cover. In response, the Turkish Attorney-General ordered Demirtash to be prosecuted for alleged links to the PKK, of which his brother Nurettin was an active member. Erdogan asked the Turkish Parliament to lift the immunity from prosecution of politicians with suspected links to militants while expressing his deep disdain towards Demirtash. Erdogan charged: "His brother was trained in the mountains…he would run to the mountains himself if he could find the opportunity…"
There is no doubt that the events which have unfolded into an open confrontation between the Turkish regime and the PKK could slide into a civil war in Turkey. It is quite obvious that the Turkish behavior has not been sparked solely by the death of two policemen killed by the PKK as a revenge on the bombing at Suruc. Analyzing the scope and the choice of the targets attacked by the Turkish military (ground and air force), it is also obvious that the main effort is directed against the Kurds in Iraq and not against the IS, which seems to continue to enjoy quasi-immunity from the Turkish government. As a matter of example, while several hundreds of Kurds are reportedly killed in the Turkish attacks, the number on the IS members killed is barely in the dozens.
One cannot escape the conclusion that Turkey's sudden change of policy is linked to the political situation; Erdogan feels that he has lost control of the political leadership since the last elections. The Turkish-Kurdish opposition People's Democracy Party (HDP) which is seen as close to the PKK won 13 percent of the seats in the June 7 general elections, depriving the AKP party, which Erdogan founded, its majority in Parliament for the first time since 2002 and forcing it to seek a coalition partner or face new elections. Moreover, Turkey's new policy comes after heavy criticism from the U.S. and the coalition relating to Turkish "sympathy" for the IS and barely three weeks after Egypt accused Turkey of sending intelligence officers to help the jihadists in Sinai. The fact that Turkey insisted in its negotiations with the U.S. that it should attack both IS and PKK targets in parallel was mistakenly understood to show an evenhanded policy against terror, while in fact, it was meant to signify to the Islamists that by attacking the PKK targets, Turkey will not allow the creation of a Kurdish political entity at its southern border.
Turkey is not content with the advance of Syrian Kurdish PYD forces against the Islamic State. Around half of Syria's 900 km (560 mile) border with Turkey is controlled by Kurds, which is not a situation acceptable to Ankara. Erdogan and his party, the AKP, worry that those advances will embolden Turkey's own 14 million Kurdish minority to demand more autonomy and more of the political rights denied today. Therefore, the agreement with the U.S. on a "safe zone" is meant to ensure that territory remains out of the hands of the PYD, preventing Syria's Kurds from joining up areas under their control into what could otherwise become a strip of Kurdish land running from the Iraqi border almost to the Mediterranean. "Erdogan stressed in the past that they would never allow the unification of Kurdish cantons in northern Syria… Jarablus is the only obstacle for this unity," Demirtash said, referring to a Syrian town on the edge of the proposed "safe zone."
The events that unfolded since the beginning of the Turkish military campaign emphasize this assumption: out of 1,300 detainees, barely 137 were individuals with links to the IS, and most of the sorties of the Turkish Air Force have been directed against the PKK. Moreover, the continued effort to discredit the HDP and its leader and to "stick" a PKK label onto them is but another way to continue the previous policy of preventing any Kurdish awakening in Turkey. Many Turks believe that by reviving the confrontation with the PKK (and the HDP), Erdogan is undermining the support enjoyed by the HDP in view of possible repeat elections. Erdogan has made no secret of his desire to change the Constitution and amass stronger power, virtually impossible without a strong majority at the Parliament. Idris Balukeri, a senior HDP lawmaker, said that Erdogan does not want a coalition to be formed from the parties elected in June's elections since he knows that such a coalition will "destroy whatever remains from his executive presidency dream."
Just weeks after the beginning of the Turkish attacks on the PKK and the IS, Turkey looks more likely to have early elections as military events are stirring nationalist sentiment and coalition talks seem to have reached a dead end.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.