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Posted at: Sep 11, 2015, 12:51 AM; last updated: Sep 10, 2015, 11:20 PM (IST)

Turkey’s Islamic State dilemma

Turkey’s principal objective is not to fight the IS but to prevent the Kurds from gaining ground. It is also aiming to protect Turkish-supported Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime. It sees the Syrian Kurds gaining in strength.
Turkey’s Islamic State dilemma
Demonstrators, wearing commando berets and holding pictures of the late Turkish army members who were killed by Kurdish militants, shout nationalist slogans during a protest against recent attacks on Turkish soldiers, in Istanbul. Reuters

TURKEY ostensibly commenced bombing of Islamic State (IS or Daesh — Arabic acronym) targets in Syria and also agreed to the use of its Incirlik military base for USA's bombing operations against the IS last month. Turkey's principal enemy is not the IS but the Kurds. Turkey's ambivalent and often supportive role towards the Islamic State (IS) has complicated the situation. Only a fraction of Turkish air strikes have targeted the IS. Turkish air strikes have clearly targeted Kurdish bases in Syria. Turkey's nuanced strategy towards the IS may have been prompted by IS suicide bombings inside Turkish territory, targeted against the Kurds, bomb blasts at a police station, an attack on the US Consulate in Istanbul and killing of policemen in a car bombing. In the last few days the Kurds have retaliated with roadside bombs in eastern Turkey, killing 12 Turkish policemen.

Turkey's principal objective is to prevent the Kurds from gaining ground. It sees the Syrian Kurds as gaining in strength, as the Syrian Kurdish Party (PYD) and the People Protection Units (YPG), linked with the Turkish Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), now control over 500 km of the border with Turkey. Fears that the Kurds will carve out a separate state in northern Syria continue to haunt Turkey. Hence the US-led coalition strategy against the IS, bumps up against the primary Turkish objective focused on the Kurds and the shared objective of removing the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria from power, undermining the coherence of the fight against the IS. 

The long-festering demand by the Kurdish population of Turkey for autonomy or independence and the simmering movements for autonomy/independence among fellow Kurds in Iraq and Syria, have caused Turkey considerable problems, including terrorist attacks, allegedly carried out by the PKK. Founded in 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK has engaged in a three-decade-long armed struggle against the Turkish State seeking autonomy or outright independence for the 15 million Kurds in Turkey, causing over 40,000 deaths. Turkey has attempted to moderate its policy towards the PKK. The Turkish government has negotiated with Ocalan, currently imprisoned in Turkey, to end the armed struggle. 

Turkey was at the forefront of supporting Syrian rebel groups, as part of a plan for regime change in Syria, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia, other GCC countries and even Israel becoming a tacit partner. Turkey permitted its borders to be breached by Islamic fighters, arms and ammunition in support of Syrian rebels and the IS, with the objective of toppling the Assad regime which had become the bête-noire of these countries, for its proximity to Iran, Russia and China. The sectarian prism also contributed to the skewed outlook since Assad belongs to the minority Alawite Sect, a Shia offshoot. The regional coalition against Assad comprises mainly Sunni countries. Assad was seen as a staunch Iranian ally and had to be evicted from power to weaken Iranian/Shia influence. The USA, usually the prime mover of regime-change projects, gave a tacit agreement to the regime change move undertaken by regional countries in a hands-off mode, to begin with, preferring to “lead from behind”. 

The latest Turkish move also has a domestic impulse. Though Erdogan won the Presidential election by a narrow margin, his Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party, AKP, lost its majority in Parliament, ceding space to the moderate People's Democratic Party, HDP, which strongly supports reconciliation with the Kurds. Attempts to form a coalition government failed last month and Erdogan has called for snap elections in November this year, placing Turkey in the shadow of political uncertainty. 

The American-led grand coalition of 60 countries to combat and destroy the IS, has not been able to put boots on the ground. The only capable forces on the ground, combating the IS and winning several battles, are the Syrian Kurds — the PYD and the YPG. On the Iraqi front, the Iraqi Kurds have fought valiantly against the IS's brutal and barbaric onslaught. The USA has supported the Kurds using its air power, which has helped the YPG defeat the four-and-a- half month siege by the IS of the border town of Kobani in January this year. Over 2 million Syrian refugees have fled into Turkey. The conflict in Syria has displaced more than 10 million people who now live in make-shift camps along the border with Turkey and Jordan. Thousands have embarked on perilous trips into Europe to escape their devastated homeland. 

Turkey has systematically sought to weaken Syrian rebel forces allied with the USA which also oppose the IS. The Americans have been trying to build a moderate force in Syria to fight the IS, as well as the Assad Government. The CIA-run programme to train moderate Syrian rebels has floundered and anti-Assad rebel ranks in Syria are dominated by the IS, Al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat-ul-Nusra and the sectarian Sunni outfit, Ahrar-as-Sham. The CIA suspects that Turkey does not want the US to have its own rebel proxies in Syria and rely upon Turkish surrogates among the rebels ranks in Syria whose main goal is to topple the Assad regime rather than fight the IS. Though President Obama has declared that “we will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL” (September 10, 2014), the ground reality reflects a stalemate. In a new development, the Turkish Foreign Minister has announced that safe havens will be created for refugees in parts of Syria that have been cleared from the grip of the IS. Jordan too is interested in creating safe havens within Syria along its border to accommodate more than 600,000 refugees residing in makeshift camps.

Confusion, inconsistency and conflicting goals have so far marked the fight against the IS. The reason for the US's inability to confront the IS more robustly has much to do with its relations with Sunni allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the other GCC countries which have fostered, tolerated and supported Sunni groups and Al-Qaida affiliates and other terrorist clones in pursuit of geo-political objectives in the region. As for Turkey, it would rather fight the Kurds than the IS because the latter is the only potent force against the Assad regime.

The writer is a former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs and a former diplomat. He is currently a distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

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