Turkey's late arrival in the war on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in northern Syria may complicate rather than simplify the challenge of defeating the group. That’s because, like many other members of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL, Ankara brings to the battlefield its own set of strategic priorities, which are at odds with key partners in the fight: Turkey’s campaign against ISIL has been twinned with an offensive against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militias in northern Iraq and its Syrian Kurdish allies, the YPG — both of which have been key players in the ground war against ISIL.
Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union have branded the PKK, which has operated a low-level insurgency in southeastern Turkey for decades, a terrorist organization. Kurdish activists and analysts have warned that Turkey may use the anti-ISIL effort as cover to launch a crackdown on the Kurds, who have formally renounced their separatist ambitions but continue to demand greater cultural and political autonomy from Ankara. Those fears have been confirmed in recent days, as Turkey’s security forces have rounded up dozens of alleged ISIL sympathizers along with many more leftist Kurds who back the PKK.
In an emergency meeting on Tuesday called by Turkey, NATO leaders heralded Ankara’s strikes against ISIL. “We all stand united in condemning terrorism, in solidarity with Turkey,” declared NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, in vague comments that may also be interpreted as a green light for Turkey’s crackdown on the PKK. Turkey’s NATO allies have reportedly asked only that Ankara use “proportionate” force against the PKK, unnamed officials told Reuters.
Despite last week's deadly attack, blamed on ISIL, at a cultural center in the town of Suruc, which killed 32 members of a leftist student group, Ankara’s main concern remains the PKK. Turkey’s government and security establishment have long feared that the military gains of the YPG — which has carved out a semiautonomous region in Syria’s north and northeast ever since Bashar al-Assad’s regime withdrew forces in 2012 in the hope that Kurds would stay out of the wider rebellion — would enliven the PKK’s separatist ambitions. That has been a major factor in Ankara’s refusal to enter the fray in Syria, aware that any campaign against ISIL could clear ground for the YPG to expand right along the border with Turkey.
To be sure, Turkey has had a change of heart on ISIL in recent months and now regrets its initial policy of turning a blind eye to the stream of recruits and smuggling operations crossing its more than 500-mile border with Syria. ISIL was deemed one of the most powerful rebel factions fighting to oust Assad — the original aim of Syria’s uprising and a Turkish priority. But it has since turned its fire almost exclusively on other rebels, including ones Ankara supports.
The group has planted sleeper cells in Turkey that have long served as a deterrent to Turkish military action against the group. On the front lines with ISIL’s so-called caliphate and as the main transit route for foreign fighters seeking to joint the group, Turkey now finds itself bracing for an inevitable backlash, said Ege Seckin, a Turkey analyst at IHS consultancy in London. “It was feared that these cells would activate if the Turkish government took a stance against [ISIL] in Syria,” he said.
The creation of a buffer zone, or ISIL-free zone, as it is reportedly being called, agreed to by the U.S. is a major concession to Turkey. Until now, Washington has long resisted setting up such a space (and outright refused requests for a no-fly zone) because it does not wish to get more involved in Syria than it already is. But Syria’s neighbors — namely Turkey and Jordan — have argued that buffer zones would help protect against ISIL spillover and stem the flow of refugees who have streamed out of Syria and strained social services in their countries. (At least 1.8 million refugees are now in Turkey.) The area would provide a safe haven for the so-called moderate rebels of the Free Syrian Army and, in particular, help them in the critical battle for the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, which could fall within such a zone.
But perhaps even more important is the tacit approval by NATO of Turkey’s crackdown on the PKK, in light of the unprecedented cooperation by the group’s Syrian counterparts and Turkey’s NATO allies. With Syria’s “moderate” rebels increasingly outgunned by hard-line groups — including Al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front) — the U.S. has found itself relying on the YPG to take the fight to ISIL on the ground, even providing material support to the YPG earlier this year so that it could drive ISIL out of the Kurdish town of Kobane, just along the border with Turkey. If the tone of Tuesday's NATO summit was any indication, Turkey has earned the alliance’s OK to at least send the PKK a warning shot.
If the campaign continues, however, analysts warn it could unravel years of carefully stitched peace talks with the PKK — and spark more violence. The Turkish strikes came just days after attackers affiliated with the PKK killed two Turkish police officers, who it says facilitated last week’s bombing in Suruc. Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an expert on Kurdish politics with the Jamestown Foundation who is based in Iraqi Kurdistan, said that while he didn't think the PKK was interested in full-scale conflict, “definitely there will be more unrest and violence if this continues as it is.”
The leader of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition HDP party, Selahattin Demirtas, on Tuesday branded the "safe zone" being carved out along Syria's northern border by Turkey and the U.S. in the current offensive as an attack on Kurdish autonomy in Syria. In a BBC interview, Demirtas urged Ankara and the PKK to resume their stalled peace process, although the Turkish government said recent PKK attacks on Turkish forces rendered dialogue impossible.
For the West, it is an easy choice to prioritize the relationship with Turkey over one with Kurdish forces like the YPG, even if the latter have a demonstrated record of fighting ISIL, wrote Cale Salih, an expert on Kurdish affairs with the European Council on Foreign Relations, in a recent analysis. “But abandoning the relatively hopeful peace process in Turkey and thereby risking the reintroduction of another conflict into a region already being wrecked by war and compromising the anti-[ISIL] coalition’s fruitful working relationship with the PYD/YPG may prove a very high price to pay for greater Turkish cooperation against [ISIL].”