Turkey’s decision to cooperate with the US against the Islamic State (IS) has come as a surprise. The Turkish government’s position was that Bashar al-Assad and his regime were the primary threat and also the cause behind the IS’s rise in Syria. Efforts had to be focused on getting rid of Assad. This had led to considerable friction between the two Nato allies, especially over growing allegations, vehemently denied by Ankara, about the flow of foreign fighters, if not also military equipment, to the IS via Turkey. What has provoked Turkey’s “game-changer” decision?
A number of reasons. First, the explosion caused by the IS in Suruc — the Turkish town right across the border from the Kurdish-Syrian town of Kobane, badly damaged by the IS last Fall — which killed activists preparing to cross the border with assistance for Kobane, was a stark reminder of the growing IS threat to Turkish security. The rounding up of IS sympathisers had already begun before the explosion. But the carnage made the government’s position untenable in the eyes of a public uncomfortable with the IS presence on the Turkish border, as well as with rumours that Turkey was implicated in aiding the IS.
Second, in June, the Kurds in northern Syria, led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and their allies defeated the IS at Tel Abyad, a border town. This enabled the PYD to connect two separate Kurdish enclaves. This precipitated fears in Turkey that the next step for the PYD, seen in Turkey as an extension of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), would be to wrench control from the IS in the only non-Kurdish-controlled stretch along the Turkish border and merge it with another Kurdish enclave. This would have brought the whole Syria-Turkey border under Kurdish control at a time when the precarious ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK was crumbling. The ceasefire had been put in place in 2013 to support the “Kurdish peace process”. The Turkish government considered the situation a major threat to national security, amid speculation that the US was supporting the creation of a Kurdish state, stretching from northern Iraq to the Mediterranean. The only way to pre-empt this seemed to be to cooperate with the US, clear this territory of the IS and hand it over to the non-extremist Syrian opposition.
Third, the Turkish general elections last month left the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) short of a majority. In blatant disregard of the constitution, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had campaigned aggressively in support of the AKP. However, the electorate, in a strategic move, punished him by channelling enough votes to the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), enabling it to cross the notoriously high electoral threshold of 10 per cent.
The deal with the US has now given the caretaker government a chance to take on the PKK. The AKP — supposed to be negotiating a coalition — is now banking on Erdogan to use this insecure climate to reveal the HDP’s “true face” as an extension of the PKK and win back votes in a fresh election to form a government on its own. The constitution requires the president to call an early or repeat election, if parliamentary parties fail to form a government within 45 days.
Last, Turkey appears to have reached an understanding with the US that a safe zone will be created from where the IS will be pushed out. This, Ankara hopes, will help strengthen the regular Syrian opposition and enable the return of some of the two million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Their presence is becoming a financial burden and increasing resentment among locals. The safe zone would also become an area to which future refugee flows could be directed.
The Turkey-US deal had been in the offing. However, what was not expected so much are the military operations against the PKK. Turkey is now vulnerable to attacks from both the IS and the PKK. Reports of violent protests as security forces round up IS and PKK suspects are fuelling instability in Turkey at a time when Ankara is in dire need of greater stability for economic, social and political reasons. Nato approved Turkey’s intervention at its emergency meeting called on Tuesday. But time will tell whether the “game-changer” decision will bring greater security and stability to Turkey and the region, or further draw Turkey into the chaos of the Middle East.
The writer is the TUSIAD Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Programme and director, Turkey Project, at Brookings, Washington DC.