On Jan. 31, 2014, Kurdish forces wrested back control of the northern Syrian town of Kobane from Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) fighters after months of combat. Kurds along the Turkish-Syrian border rejoiced at the news. Miles away, in Istanbul, there was little mention of the victory, much less a mass celebration.
I was at a terrorism conference in the Uskudar municipality on the shore of the Bosphorus, where Turkish academics and politicians were gathered to discuss the West’s construction of terror and Islamophobia. ISIL was a scheme meant to generate global support for an ill-defined and seemingly perpetual war on terror, one participant quipped. “It is Western governments that through their intermeddling and interference have created terror organizations like ISIL and Boko Haram,” Serhat Ulaglu, who organized the conference, told a Turkish television covering the event.
These comments represent growing skepticism in Turkey toward the U.S-led campaign against ISIL. This is in part fueled by unanswered questions about the campaign’s objectives and projected outcomes once ISIL is defeated. Many Turks believe that the U.S.-led campaign is motivated more by Washington’s desire to consolidate its own strategic alliances than by a meaningful threat to the world order. It also reveals how lack of Ankara’s support could thwart efforts to stabilize the restive region. Furthermore, the Turks uneasiness with the anointment of the Kurds as saviors points to a grim prognosis of the war.
To be clear, Turkey is bearing the brunt of the war at its borders. It has taken in more Syrian refugees than any other European country, opening its biggest refugee camp for 35,000 refugees from Kobane. It has opened a total of 24 camps to house more than 250,000 refugees since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. The Turkish intelligence agency has warned that ISIL is planning attacks against foreign embassies in Turkey. Despite these warnings, however, Turkey has largely rebuffed Washington’s demands to shut down the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent halt the flow of foreign fighters into Syria.
“In any case, there isn’t a state on the other side of the border,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said last month, explaining why Turkey was unable to shut down its 510-mile border with Syria. Participants at the terrorism conference in Istanbul echoed his ambivalence. “It was too early to tell…they may yet do something constructive in a war torn region,” a professor at Turkey’s National Police Academy, said of ISIL.
Turkey has sound strategic reasons to be skeptical about the latest iteration of the war on terror. Ankara associates terror with its Kurdish minority and their struggle for a separate state. In October 2014, in the thick of the campaign against ISIL, Turkish military bombed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) posts in response to attacks on its military installations in southern Turkey. The incident was the first direct confrontation since a ceasefire was signed in 2012 following 30 years of conflict that resulted in more than 40,000 deaths. Ankara is engaged in peace talks with the PKK, whose position in the negotiations is likely to be strengthened by its growing international profile as a force against ISIL.
Turkey’s reluctance to fight ISIL can be wrapped up in the same kind of rationalizations that the US uses to justify its support of the Saudis.
The fear on the political front appears even more palpable. On Jan. 28, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which in the past fielded independent candidates in local elections, announced plans to run as a political party. No Kurdish political party has been elected to the Turkish parliament since 1980. There is also a concern that hardline Kurdish militants could join forces with Turkey’s other Marxist groups against the Turkish state. From 2012 to 2013, the leftist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party carried out nearly a dozen terrorist attacks in Turkey. It initially appeared that its most recent attack came on Jan. 6 when a female suicide bomber blew herself up in front of a police station in Istanbul’s tourist filled Sultanhamet District. Although the party claimed responsibility, the attacker turned out to be from Russia's Daghestan Republic and was married to a Chechen who died in Syria fighting with ISIL the previous month.
The decimation of Kurds by ISIL benefits Turkey. ISIL’s brutal beheadings of western hostages served as a cornerstone of the U.S. led global action. But skeptics in Turkey point to Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally and member of the anti-ISIL coalition, which has already beheaded 21 people in 2015. While ISIL’s brutalities loom large, Saudi beheadings barely make headlines. If the fight is really against extremism, the Turks ask, why is it that only certain extremists garner global condemnation?
Unlike Saudi Arabia, Turkey is a moderate Muslim country with a large middle class. In Istanbul’s trams, subway cars and buses, women in headscarves rub shoulders with those in mini skirts. Restaurants have prayer rooms and bars and commuters literally hop between Asia and Europe. While crackdowns on pro-Kurdish journalists have become more frequent, it is no Saudi Arabia, where Raif Badawi awaits flogging by 1,000 lashes for being a liberal blogger. The Turkish disinterest in fighting ISIL can be wrapped up in the same kind of rationalizations that the U.S. uses to justify its support of the Saudis. Turkish nationalism paints Kurds as terrorists while U.S. interests tolerate Saudi beheadings and castigate ISIL’s brutalities.
Still, Pakistan’s experience on being hectored into supporting the war on terror should give the Turks some pause. In 2001, when NATO forces (including Turkey) invaded Afghanistan, the United States criticized Islamabad for failing to police its own porous border. It was said that Taliban fighters were hiding in Pakistan. At the time, few in Pakistan were interested. In fact, the Afghan Taliban served as a foil against expanding Indian interests in southern Afghanistan. Pakistan refused to fight the Taliban, but 10 years later, the group poses an existential threat to the Pakistani state. The Pakistani military is now fighting them on every front, but its efforts could prove too little, too late. Turkey may find itself in a similar predicament down the road. The current thumbing of its nose to the United States may be justified, but it carries costs for Turkey’s future stability.
In his speech at the Istanbul conference, Metin Kulunk, the Justice and Development Party representative from Uskudar, called on the academics to develop a vocabulary of terrorism that goes beyond the binaries and reductionisms that view terror as a “Muslim” problem. For him and many others in Turkey, the ISIL bogeyman is a product of orientalist frames, which imagines Western strategic interests as part of international security. “The global struggle against terrorism cannot be successful by ignoring the female suicide bomber in Istanbul,” Deputy Turkish Prime Minister Yalcin Erdogan, who also heads Turkey’s negotiations with the Kurds, said at the conference. In drawing attention to the suicide bomber in Istanbul, Erdogan underscored what Ankara sees as the biggest failing of the war on terror: The proclivity to define terrorism only according to the dictates of the United States.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article falsely identified the female suicide bomber who attacked a police station in Istanbul on Jan. 6, 2015, as acting on behalf of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party. We regret the error.