I have a new piece in Foreign Affairs on Turkey’s recent agreement to engage in the fight against ISIS, and what Ankara is really hoping to accomplish, namely an assault against Kurdish nationalism both at home and abroad. While it is evident that Turkey’s airstrikes have so far been directed primarily at the PKK rather than at ISIS, Ankara is at the same time directing a political assault against the HDP, Turkey’s Kurdish political party, in the hopes of killing two birds with one stone. Here is my argument in Foreign Affairs:
On July 23, Turkey finally joined the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and it did so with much fanfare. It began with a series of air and artillery strikes to push back ISIS forces in Syria and seal what has been a porous southern border. The Turkish government also gave the United States access to its Incirlik and Diyarbakir airbases, opening them up to support combat missions, not just surveillance operations.
This was a major win for the Obama administration, which, for months, had been negotiating with a reluctant Turkey to get it to recognize the ISIS threat. U.S. officials are now hopeful that ISIS can be set back on its heels, since Ankara will be able to wage a more robust bombing campaign given its proximity to the conflict. The U.S.–Turkish agreement about the Incirlik and Diyarbakir airbases apparently also involved the establishment of a safe zone in northwest Syria just north of Aleppo, something the Turkish government has long demanded, although Washington has refused to commit to it. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has argued that a safe zone would naturally emerge after removing ISIS forces from that part of Syria.
Yet all is not as it seems. Although Washington trumpeted the agreement as a potential game changer in the fight against ISIS, Ankara’s recent behavior suggests that its primary mission is to use the opportunity to simultaneously fight the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group that the government has been fighting for decades. The group, however, has also been on the frontlines battling ISIS.
As Washington celebrated Turkey’s new commitment, Ankara’s initial airstrikes last week targeted both ISIS and PKK positions, and, as some have noted, the United States has essentially enabled Turkey to cloak its primary objective—striking the PKK and its Syrian cousin, the People’s Protection Units (also known as the YPG)—in the general fight against ISIS. Turkey would also be able to ensure that U.S. strikes against ISIS positions do not benefit Kurdish fighters in the process by coordinating joint missions and moving Turkish troops into areas immediately following U.S. sorties. By conceding to Washington’s requests to do more against ISIS, Turkey is actually hoping to achieve its true goal, which is to prevent the autonomous Syrian Rojava canton currently controlled by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) from turning into a truly independent Kurdish state and additionally, using the Kurdish issue to bolster its political standing at home.
Turkey has also targeted its own Kurdish population through heightened policing after the July 20 terrorist bombing in the border town of Suruc. Linked to ISIS, the attack was directed at pro-Kurdish activists and left 23 dead. Since then, Turkey has been conducting an anti-terror sweep that as of July 29 has resulted in the arrest of 137 suspected ISIS sympathizers and 847 suspected PKK members. Writing in the pro-government paper, Daily Sabah, the influential presidential foreign policy adviser Ibrahim Kalin explicitly linked ISIS and the PKK . He essentially argued that the PKK and ISIS are two sides of the same coin because both groups use terrorism to achieve their political goals, and that PKK attacks are just as big a threat to Turkey as those carried out by ISIS.
Fighting the PKK and thwarting Kurdish ambitions in Syria are not the only dynamics driving Turkish actions. In addition to all of this, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is head of the current caretaker government that will rule the country until a new coalition is formed (or, if one fails to form, until new elections are held in the fall), is attempting to reverse the political consequences of its Kurdish Opening policy, which granted Turkish Kurds greater rights in using the Kurdish language and expressing their Kurdish culture. It brought momentary peace, but appears now to have weakened the AKP’s hold on power.
To read the rest, please head over to Foreign Affairs.