Turkey’s Kurdish Gambit
Last week, Turkey launched air strikes against Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) locations in South-Eastern Turkey – the first major strike since a truce was proclaimed in March of 2013, after the PKK assaulted a Turkish military outpost. The PKK has actively aided Syrian Kurds in the fight over Kobane against advancing Islamic State (IS) forces. Turkey, however, has been more reluctant to support the Syrian Kurds, even as IS approaches the Turkish border and causes mass migrations of people across the Syrian-Turkish frontier. Furthermore, the PKK has waged an independence struggle against Turkey for 30 years, causing the Turkish government to be more cautious than its other Western partners to support the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Turkey has stated that it will give the US access to airbases and train moderate Syrian opposition forces inside the country, but how its anti-PKK and anti-IS strategy will converge remains to be seen.
Still a month after the anti-IS coalition was formed, Turkey still remains in doubt as to its full participation in the fight. This proves a challenging obstacle for the coalition, because of Turkey’s long border with Syria and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq – who has also faced a strong onslaught from IS. Ankara has recognized that Islamic State is a threat to Turkey, but the country also understands that the Kurds are a threat too. The Kurds are also the enemies of IS, and have been receiving military aid from Turkey’s NATO allies for months through Iraq. A recent proposal to transfer US weapons from Turkey to the Syrian Kurds was emphatically rejected by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, citing that Turkey sees the Syrian PYD – the main Syrian Kurdish group – as the same as the PKK. Turkey sees aiding the Kurdish resistance as counterintuitive as cross-national Kurdish groups have at times vied to establish a state across Kurdish territories; many of which lie inside Turkey. However, the Islamic State also has an anti-Turkish agenda, and has been attracting tepid support within Istanbul. In response to Turkey’s pronouncements, the United States commenced an airdrop of supplies into Kobane; demonstrating its commitment to aid the very Kurds that Turkey regards as anathema.
Ankara’s refusal to follow Western plans in the fight for Kobane and against IS over the Kurdish question once again reveals the complexity of the anti-IS coalition. Turkey has insisted that the coalition also take aim against Bashar Al-Assad’s forces in Syria, but the United States insist that fighting the Islamic State is the only priority of the coalition. This has complicated efforts to make Turkey join the fold, which an English-language newspaper in Turkey has highlighted as counter to Turkish interests. The light between Turkish and American goals in Syria and Iraq have certainly frustrated efforts to quickly develop a coherent strategy against the Islamic State, which continues to wage a battle over Kobane. The essential question is what Ankara views as its real priorities. Turkey sees that it must not only fight IS, it must help Syrian rebels defeat Bashar al-Assad – whose government is also committed to fighting IS – and keep a leash on the Kurds – who are also fighting IS. Washington and many in the coalition would prefer that Turkey and the Kurds move aside their enmities and focus on the immediate fight against Islamic State, but Turkey has been reticent to follow the Washington’s lead.
On October 20th, Turkey announced that it would allow the Kurdish Regional Government’s Peshmerga forces to cross its territory and join the fight in Kobane, but it would refuse to grant Turkish Kurds the same benefit. While this is an encouraging development for the Syrian Kurds fighting IS in Kobane, it still demonstrates how much mistrust remains between Ankara and the Kurds in Turkey. It is worth noting that the Turkey and the KRG have had warm relations, despite the Kurdish Government’s open aspirations for Kurdish independence from Iraq. However, the Kurdish Peshmerga are embroiled in Iraq fighting Islamists, who relaunched attacks against Kurdish forces in Iraq after the Turkish President’s shift in policy. This cast doubts on the effectiveness of such a move, especially when compared to directly transferring weapons to Kurdish groups across the border or letting PKK members join the fight. Meanwhile, the fight for Syria continues and the people of Kobane continue to bear the brunt of the war, while Ankara watches on with reluctance.
Ankara and Washington need to find a policy that resolves Turkish qualms over Kurdish intentions and the role of Assad in the coalition’s strategy. For the coalition, it is simple: it cannot proclaim to fight both Assad and IS at the same time, because it would cause too many ruptures within the region and prevent such a coalition. If Turkey continues to focus its attention on defeating the Kurds, it could cause them to restart all-out combat with the Turkish military and significantly divert efforts from the fight against the Islamists, the key objective from Baghdad to Washington. In turn, this force vacuum could give IS a more liberated hand and amass more force within Syria, where “moderates” and pro-Assad forces have still been raging in civil war. This chain of events would make Turkey’s situation more perilous, as it would strengthen Islamic State, a faction much more difficult to negotiate with than the Kurds – whom Ankara has no hesitation to call “terrorists”.