BACKGROUND: On September 11, 2014, Turkey had refused to sign a pledge by the US and ten Arab states – including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – to take military action against the Islamic State. At the time, Turkey justified its refusal by arguing that it could not risk jeopardizing the lives of the 46 Turkish nationals and three Iraqi citizens who had been captured by the Islamic State when it overran the Turkish Consulate in the Iraqi city of Mosul on June 11, 2014. The hostages were finally released on September 20, 2014. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has refused to provide details of what it gave in return, although the deal is generally believed to have included a prisoner exchange.
On September 23, 2014, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that Turkey was prepared to do everything possible to combat the Islamic State, including taking military action. However, over the weeks that followed, Erdoğan made it clear that Turkey’s cooperation would come at a price. He repeated the calls he had made in 2011-2012 during the first years of the Syrian Civil War for an international agreement to create a no-fly and buffer zone in Syria.
The Islamic State does not possess any aircraft. Nor is Erdoğan planning to create a buffer zone in territory controlled by the organization. Privately, AKP officials say that it would be created in western Syria in territory controlled by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has long been supported by Ankara. They argue that a buffer zone could serve both as a safe haven for some of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey and as a platform for a successful FSA campaign to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
On October 2, 2014, the Turkish parliament approved a motion renewing the authority for the country’s military to stage cross-border operations in Syria and Iraq, while adding extra provisions allowing foreign troops either to be based in Turkey or to transit the country to stage operations beyond its orders. But AKP officials still insisted that Turkey would not join the US-led coalition – or allow it to use Turkish territory – without the creation of a no-fly and buffer zone.
The AKP’s calls for a buffer zone alarmed Kurdish nationalists, who feared that Ankara would attempt to use a strip of Turkish-controlled territory along the Turkish-Syrian border to drive a wedge between Syrian and Turkish Kurds and undermine the de facto autonomous Kurdish region that has emerged in northern Syria under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The AKP government has made no secret of its opposition to the enclave, which it fears is fuelling similar aspirations amongst Turkey’s own restive Kurdish minority. Ankara’s unease has been exacerbated by the PYD’s close ideological affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency for greater Kurdish rights in Turkey since 1984.
In late 2012, the AKP rekindled a dialogue with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, which led to a temporary unilateral PKK ceasefire in March 2013. But the process has long been stalled, mainly because the AKP has opted to focus on trying to disarm the PKK rather than initiating substantive negotiations to address the issues that underpin its insurgency. By early summer 2014, frustration at the lack of progress meant that the PKK commanders were openly discussing an imminent return to violence.
However, the rapid advances of the Islamic State into Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq forced the PKK to adjust its priorities. PKK militants were deployed to fight alongside the PYD in Syria and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) peshmerga militia in Iraq. On the battlefield, PKK units have consistently outperformed both the PYD and the peshmerga. And the willingness of its militants to sacrifice their lives in defense not only of their fellow Kurds but also of Christians, Yezidis and even Turkish-speaking Turkmen has considerably enhanced the PKK’s reputation both inside and outside the region.
IMPLICATIONS: In contrast, the AKP’s already battered international reputation has suffered even more damage, particularly as Islamic State forces have begun to close in on Kobane. At the time of writing, Kobane was surrounded on three sides. The fourth – to the north – is the Turkish border, which Ankara has attempted to seal to prevent Turkish Kurds from reinforcing the PYD and PKK units defending the town.
Kobane has limited strategic value. But its plight has meant that it has assumed a symbolic, almost iconic, significance to the region’s Kurds. Ankara’s refusal either to rally to Kobane’s defense or to allow others to do so has reinforced the widespread belief amongst Kurdish nationalists that the AKP actively supports the Islamic State and wants it to overrun not only Kobane but the entire autonomous Kurdish region in Syria.
In fact, at worst, the AKP’s attitude towards the Islamic State and other extremist Islamist organizations has been characterized more by willful indifference than active support, particularly during the early years of the Syrian Civil War when it pursued an open door policy towards anyone opposed to Assad. But, even though the AKP has now made it more difficult for extremists to transit Turkey on their way to Syria, the border remains porous. The government has also failed to take effective action against pro-Islamic State propaganda and recruitment activities in Turkey. In a country where tens of thousands of websites have been outlawed, pro-Islamic State websites have continued to operate with impunity.
On October 7, 2014, during a speech to Syrian refugees in the southeastern city of Gaziantep, Erdoğan described the PKK and the Islamic State as being as bad as each other. He then dismissively told Kurds to accept that Kobane’s fate was already sealed. “Kobane has fallen. It will fall,” he said.
Within hours, tens of thousands of Kurdish nationalists had taken to the streets across Turkey. In addition to attacking AKP and government buildings, in the southeast in particular they also targeted offices of the Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par), the political party formed by the Sunni Kurdish Hizbullah. During the early 1990s, Hizbullah fought and effectively defeated the PKK in a war for supremacy in the cities of southeast Turkey. Hizbullah – which is unconnected with Lebanese Shia organization of the same name – is currently focused on pursuing its goals through political means and grassroots activities. But the tensions and rivalry have remained – and have recently been exacerbated by the number of young Hüda-Par supporters who have crossed the border into Syria to fight for extremist organizations such as the Islamic State.
On October 7, 2014, when PKK sympathizers attacked a Hüda-Par office in Diyarbakır, some of those inside opened fire. Three Hüda-Par supporters and two demonstrators were reported killed. There were similar clashes in other cities. In many neighborhoods, Hüda-Par supporters armed themselves with clubs and knives to protect party premises or to attack suspected PKK sympathizers. The Turkish government responded by imposing curfews in six provinces in the southeast and deploying not only police and gendarmerie but also units of the regular army in an attempt to restore order.
CONCLUSIONS: Turkey’s insistence on a no-fly and buffer zone to protect the FSA in exchange for Ankara’s support for the US-led operation against the Islamic State is an attempt to refight past battles, not only to overthrow Assad but to enable Erdoğan to claim that the international community has endorsed his methods for doing so. However, the situation on the ground in Syria has changed considerably. The Islamic State now poses the most formidable military threat to Assad, while the FSA is weak and divided. A no-fly and buffer zone would provide the FSA with protection but it would not strengthen it to the level where it could defeat Assad’s forces on the battlefield.
Nor does Erdoğan appear to realize the impact that his bargaining is having on Turkey’s international reputation, particularly the impression that he is trading human lives in pursuit of his own political agenda. Some of the resultant criticism is undoubtedly unfair. For example, calls for Turkey to send ground troops across the border to protect Kobane are hypocritical when they come from those who are not prepared to do so themselves. But there is also no doubt that the AKP government has undermined its own credibility. For example, claiming that Turkey was unable to take action for fear of jeopardizing the lives of the hostages and then, when the hostages had been released, setting another precondition for action creates the impression that it is just looking for excuses. Nor would Turkey have to become actively involved itself. If Turkey merely opened its airbases to coalition planes, the coalition could significantly increase the firepower that could be deployed against the Islamic State.
More disturbing is that Turkey’s attempt to refight one battle from the past appears to have to rekindled two more, raising the risk both of an escalation in PKK violence and further clashes between supporters of the PKK and Hizbullah. Even if a large proportion of its forces were not deployed in Iraq and Syria, it is now too late in the year for the PKK to launch a sustained campaign before the winter snow starts falling in its main battlegrounds in the mountains of southeast Turkey. But, unless the AKP government moves quickly to begin comprehensive peace negotiations, the PKK appears likely to launch a full-scale insurgency in spring 2015. Even if Ankara does launch peace negotiations, not only have its policies towards Kobane hardened PKK attitudes but the organization will feel that it is able to negotiate from a much stronger position than even a few months ago and is unlikely to settle for anything less than autonomy. In the short-term, more violent protests appear inevitable. The only questions are how serious they will be and – most dangerously – whether they develop a momentum of their own.
Ironically, over the last two years, as other fissures in Turkish society deepened, ethnic tensions between Turks and Kurds were relatively subdued. Although Kurdish nationalists remained skeptical of the AKP’s sincerity, they were hesitant about condemning it outright, noting that – unlike previous governments – at least the AKP was talking to them. That has been destroyed by Kobane. Rebuilding even a modicum of trust is going to be very difficult and Erdoğan’s recent record does not suggest that he is capable of doing it. But, unless it is done, the consequences could be severe.
Gareth Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, based in Istanbul.
(Image Attribution: Alan Denney, Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0 license)