12 November 2015

Turkey’s Troubling ISIS Game

NOV. 7, 2015 
Kurdish protesters and Turkish riot police officers clashed in Diyarbakir on Nov. 1, after election results showed a clear victory for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party.CreditBulent Kilic/Agence France-

SANLIURFA, Turkey — ABOVE a restaurant specializing in sheep’s head soup, with steaming tureens of broth in the window, two young Syrian journalists took up residence in this ancient town in southeastern Turkey. They had fled Raqqa, the stronghold in Syria of the Islamic State, or ISIS, and devoted their time to denouncing the crimes of the barbarous jihadi group. Today, their second-floor apartment is a crime scene, with a red police seal on the door.

On Oct. 30, the Islamic State beheaded Ibrahim Abdel Qader, age 22, and slit the throat of 20-year-old Fares Hammadi. They later posted a video of their handiwork, saying enemies “will never be safe from the blade of the Islamic State.” The killers have not been found; a new unease inhabits this bustling town about 30 miles from the Syrian border. “It was shocking to have a first beheading in Turkey,” Omer Yilmaz, the owner of the restaurant, told me. “We are used to bullets, but that, no. To slaughter a human like an animal is unthinkable.”

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The unthinkable is becoming conceivable in a combustible Turkey. Syrian violence has seeped over the border. The Islamic State is now entangled in the age-old conflict of Turks and Kurds. During several days near the Syrian border, often in areas with Kurdish majorities, I found simmering anger among Kurds and predictions of worsening bloodshed.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, bolstered by the electoral triumph of his conservative Islamist Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., has shown a troubling penchant for benign neglect toward the jihadi Islamists — enough for them to establish a Turkish network.

What does Erdogan — in theory a key American ally leading a NATO state — see in the knife-wielding jihadis of the Islamic State? They are useful in confronting Turkey’s nemesis, the Kurds, who have taken over wide sections of northern Syria and established self-government in an area they call Rojava. That in turn has raised the specter of a border-straddling Kurdistan, the nightmare of the Turkish republic.

Hence the unpersuasive Turkish balancing act that sees Erdogan offering the United States use of Turkish air bases to fight the Islamic State even as Turkey twice strikes the positions in Syria of Kurdish militias who, as my colleague Tim Arango put it, are the “most important allies within Syria of the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.” Hence, also, the bungling and inaction that produced, on Oct. 10 in Ankara, the worst terrorist attack in Turkish history.

The Ankara suicide bombing followed another suicide bombing in the border town of Suruc that killed 33 pro-Kurdish activists in July.

One of the Ankara suicide bombers was the older brother of the Suruc suicide bomber. Their father tried without success to alert the government to the danger. Almost three months elapsed between the bombings, both of which principally targeted Kurds, and Erdogan did nothing. After the Ankara attack, his prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said the government had a list of potential suicide bombers but could not detain them because “as a country with rule of law, you can’t arrest them until they act.” (Not easy to do afterward either.) These words were uttered even as countless Kurdish militants were rounded up in the months between the June and November elections.

The impression has been inescapable that, for the government, having Islamic State militants kill Kurds with impunity was a palatable option with the bonus of creating the climate of instability that secured the Nov. 1 electoral victory for Erdogan.

For Erdogan’s A.K.P. government, the terrorist organization par excellence is the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which has fought an intermittent insurgency against Turkey since the 1980s, is linked to the Kurdish militias in Syria and is designated a terrorist group by the United States. The president, infused with post-electoral vim, vowed this week to fight P.K.K. members until they would lay down their weapons “and pour concrete over them.” The Islamic State, by comparison, is the object of no such ruthless language or action.

I found Gultan Kisanak, the mayor of Diyarbakir, the effective capital of Kurdish aspirations for autonomy within Turkey, watering roses on the terrace outside her office. There was not a cloud in the sky on a mild late-fall day. But her mood was grim. Kisanak is a member of the Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic Party, or H.D.P., which took over 70 percent of the vote in Diyarbakir but saw its national vote share fall to 10.7 percent from 13.1 percent in June as Erdogan’s fear tactics worked. “ISIS became such a large force thanks to an open-door policy from Ankara,” she told me. “Militants come and go. ISIS has been delegated to fight a proxy war against Kurdish Rojava, and all kinds of support has been given to them.”

THE government dismisses such suggestions. Did Turkey not, in extremis and under great international pressure, allow arms to reach the Kurdish-held Syrian town of Kobani and so prevent its fall to the Islamic State? Are Turkish air bases not being used by the American-led coalition? Do the Kurds not have in the H.D.P. representation in Parliament, as well as control of many municipalities? What do the Kurds want that they do not already have unless it’s territory — and that Turkey will never give.

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“For us, ISIS and the P.K.K. have the same aim,” Abdurrahman Yetkin, a prominent businessman and Erdogan supporter in Sanliurfa, told me. “Both organizations are being used by external powers to destabilize Turkey.”

You hear a lot of such talk from the Erdogan camp these days — talk that implausibly conflates Islamist jihadis and Kurdish militants, as in the official characterization of the Ankara bombing as a “cocktail” involving both. It is this sort of manipulation of the facts that undermines the government’s insistence that it’s in the Islamic State fight for real.

Certainly it is targeting the Kurds. The P.K.K. made a big mistake by answering Suruc with the killing of two Turkish policemen. Violence could only serve Erdogan, who embarked on a fierce bombing campaign on P.K.K. strongholds in northern Iraq and has shown equal ruthlessness within Turkey. Diyarbakir and other majority Kurdish towns in the southeast have been under intermittent curfew. Attempts to establish autonomy in certain city districts have been crushed.

Reeling back what he has unleashed after a dozen years in power is going to be hard for Erdogan. Power and money seem to have gone to his head. Turkey has veered into violence and polarization. “Erdogan is scared and he deals with it by making everyone more scared than he is,” Soli Ozel, a university lecturer, told me.

The Turkish president needs to get back to the negotiating table with the Kurds, get serious about crushing the Islamic State in Turkey and beyond, ensure a transparent and credible investigation of the brutal killings in Suruc and Ankara (as well as the double murder in Sanliurfa) and stop his assault on a free press. President Obama should press his ally hard on all these fronts.

Turkey, a heterogeneous nation, cannot be homogenized under the banner of Erdogan’s Sunni Islamist nationalism. Intolerance will backfire, as it has in Syria. “They don’t want the Kurds even to breathe,” Ahmet Turk, the mayor of the beautiful southern town of Mardin, told me. “Kurds do not want violence, but if Erdogan does not stop, things could get much worse.”

In Sanliurfa, as night fell, I met Ahmed Abdel Qader, the older brother of the beheaded journalist. He told me, “The guys who did this killing are now threatening me.” His dark eyes seemed haunted. Turkey’s tide of violence, cynically cultivated, must now be curbed. It won’t be easy.

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