August 11, 2015
Turkey has finally joined the war against Islamic State. It has started bombing the terror group’s locations in the Syrian border region. It has also allowed access for U.S. aircraft to two of its airbases, departing from its long-held position. Despite pressure from the U.S. and other countries to “do more” against IS, Turkeyhardly did anything when it was steadily on the march in Syria, for Ankara’s main goal was to see the fall of the Bashar al Assad government in Syria. But Mr. Assad still controls Damascus, while IS has grown in strength in eastern Syria. IS attacks on Kurdish towns on the Syria-Turkey border have brought the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units, known as YPG, into direct conflict with the terror group. Surprisingly, Kurdish militias pushed IS back from several border towns. Their increasingly effective resistance against IS even forced U.S. Air Force cover being offered to Kurdish militants. Turkey was alarmed. Its decision to join the war against IS should be seen against this background.
It can be argued that there is a realisation among the elites in Ankara that IS poses a threat to Turkey’s interests and that triggered its participation in the war. After all, the bombing of the Turkish city of Suruc by IS last month killed at least 33 people. But Turkey did not just decide to attack IS. It has started bombing PKK centres, claiming that both the Kurdish rebels and IS are “two sides of the same coin”. This makes the Turkish strategy a dangerously complicated one. Ankara might assume that by launching a two-phase attack it could weaken both enemies. Also, the promised joint operations with the U.S. would help it make sure no future air cover is provided to Kurds. But this strategy overlooks the fact that the Kurdish rebels were the most effective forces against IS on the ground. Even the U.S. air strikes were successful only when they were supplemented by ground attacks. By targeting Kurds, Turkey runs the risk of weakening the battle against IS. Any resumption of the war against the PKK could take Turkey back to violence. It ought to have focussed on its military operation against IS while taking forward the ceasefire with Kurds in order to build a sustainable peace plan. That would have strengthened the anti-IS war, while addressing internal problems. The decision instead to give up the peace process and bomb the Kurds raises questions about Turkey’s real intentions in the war against IS.