ISIS, Kurds Targeted in Turkey’s Quest to Stabilize

A protester clashes with police following the funeral of a man targeted by Turkish anti-terror raids. Istanbul, Turkey, July 26, 2015. (Ahmet Bolat/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Turkey’s political stability has faced a severe test since the country’s June 7 general election. A divided electorate, with no party obtaining a clear majority, ushered in a period of intense uncertainty in a region which continues to experience high levels of conflict and terrorism. Then, on July 20, a bomber suspected to be a member of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) attacked a gathering of pro-Kurdish volunteer workers in the district of Suruc, killing 32 people and wounding dozens more. The government was quick to condemn the violence, while opponents accused it of failing to prevent the attacks. The reaction to the criticism has been pronounced, with a series of military measures designed to safeguard the state and challenge its domestic and regional opponents.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was already on shaky ground prior to the attacks. The 40% of the vote it achieved in the general election was its lowest percentage since 2002. AKP still dominated in its traditional central and rural strongholds, but its power was undermined by a strong showing by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which secured 13% of the ballot, thanks in no small part to a large turnout in the Kurdish southeastern provinces. The primary opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), also secured 25% of the vote, with a strong showing in numerous western coastal districts. AKP’s failure to secure a majority and create a coalition government has set the stage for another vote. In the interim, the opposition has sought to increase the political pressure by supporting anti-government protests condemning the apparent inability to ensure Turkey’s security.

The growth in Kurdish political power within Turkey mirrors the power and influence Kurdish groups have acquired south of the border. Since 2012, Kurdish militias in northern Syria have gained significant international attention and support. The Kurd People’s Protection Units (YPG), allied to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)—the Turkish government’s traditional domestic opponent—have made significant inroads against ISIS in northern Syria. This success was exemplified by its defense and eventual defeat of ISIS forces in Kobane, from September 2014 to January 2015. The Kurdish triumphs laid the platform for a possible future Kurd autonomous region or state in northern Syria and brought it closer to the United States, which was a key partner in the fight. For the Turkish government, the rising prestige of the YPG and by association, the PKK, is a step back for its general goals—the reduction of PKK influence and the reestablishment of authority in the southeast.

Meanwhile, the US and other western allies have increased pressure on Turkey to confront ISIS in a more meaningful manner. Since 2011, Ankara has largely refrained from involving itself in the Syrian conflict. Indeed, its hand off approach has led to its territory being a major conduit for fighters and material heading towards rebel and extremist groups in Syria. It has, however, supported various Syrian rebel groups in defence of its overall strategy to remove the Bashar al-Assad regime. Now, in the wake of political instability, fears over the rise of Kurdish groups, and increasing domestic attacks—the Suruc violence was preceded by another suspected ISIS attack in Diyarbakir in May 2015—the government appears to have been forced into a more aggressive response.

In recent months, the authorities have deployed an increasing number of military personnel and assets to the Syrian border. These forces have joined an already elevated military contingent arrayed across the lengthy territorial line since 2011. The Suruc attack appears to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. In recent days, the Turkish government has announced that the US-led air coalition tackling ISIS was now free to use the Incirlik air base to conduct manned air operations in Syria. Turkish forces have also conducted a number of air strikes against ISIS positions in Syria and against the PKK in northern Iraq. And, anti-terrorism raids across the country since July 24 have netted dozens of suspects associated with ISIS, PKK, and the leftist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front. These operations are aimed at reducing the potential for backlash in light of Turkey’s newly aggressive stance.

Turkey’s confrontation against ISIS, which appears to be gaining momentum, is also likely to coincide with a spike in anti-PKK operations. The PKK has antagonized the AKP by increasingly highlighting what it considers to an undermining of Turkey’s national security. On July 22, PKK militants claimed responsibility for an attack against Turkish security forces in the Ceylanpinar district, stating that the two assassinated offices were cooperating with ISIS. This incident also coincided with several low-level bombings and shootings targeting security and government personnel and facilities.

The AKP regime is unlikely to step back from this growing domestic opposition. While its ability to confront “legitimate” political entities such as HDP and CHP is limited to dispersing protests, it has a much greater freedom of maneuver against the PKK, which many in the West, including the US, view as a terrorist organization. Indeed, the Turkish government also recently struck at PKK sites in northern Iraq, reviving a strategy that was commonly utilized prior to a unilateral PKK ceasefire in 2013.

There are signs that Ankara is seeking to reassert its authority near Syria and the military deployments to the shared border appear to be setting the stage for the creation of a small buffer zone in that country’s Aleppo governorate. This will achieve two broad objectives: it will impact on ISIS’s ability to move in and out of the area, and it will reinforce Turkish authority in an area that has begun to increasingly come under the gaze of the Kurds.

The government is likewise expected to continue its operations in southeast Turkey. There had already been signs of a growing militarization in the area in 2015 with numerous skirmishes reported. Many if not most of these attacks have been linked to Kurd opposition to the government’s construction of military posts, dams, and roads in Kurdish communities. In early July, the Kurd umbrella group, the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), which includes the PKK, announced that the unilateral ceasefire was over in response to these “violations.”

Turkey’s AKP-dominated government is seeking to stabilize the political system, secure its power, and limit the security risks to the country. Its ability to achieve the first two goals through conventional methods is limited. However, if the government can take the initiative against groups which are threatening the country’s security, namely ISIS, it could generate significant support that could assist it in any eventual new vote or during coalition building talks. Its primary fight against ISIS will also provide it with sufficient cover to take on the Kurds who, since 2014, have gained increasing international support for their fight in Iraq and Syria. The strategy is not without risk, however, and PKK, YPG, or ISIS blowback could be severe sometime in the future.