war on the rocks

What’s Eating Turkey? Ankara and the Islamic State

July 30, 2015

On July 20, Turkey suffered one of its deadliest suicide bombing attacks in recent memory, which claimed more than 30 lives. While the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has not yet claimed responsibility, all signs point toward them as the culprits. The location, timing, and the identity of the victims were just too specific to think otherwise.

The setting of this grisly attack was the town of Suruc, the pathway to the Syrian town of Kobane, where ISIL lost a long and bloody battle to the YPG (People’s Protection Units), which enjoyed American air support. The timing was also distinctive. The suicide attack took place the day after Syrian Kurds and their sympathizers in Turkey celebrated the third anniversary of the “Rojava [Western Kurdistan] Revolution” of 2012,when the PYD (Democratic Unity Party) formally declared its intention to govern and defend Kurdish-populated areas in Syria in the wake of the withdrawal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces from these enclaves.

The suicide bomber targeted a group of university-age activists who came to Suruc with the hopes of crossing over to Kobane and contributing to the rebuilding of the city. The bomb went off as activists were delivering a press release in front of cameras, so that the attack would also be recorded. The message behind the attack was clear: ISIL has not given up on Kobane and will not tolerate Syrian Kurds receiving support from Turkish territory.

In the aftermath of the attack, Turkey has begun for the first time to directly target ISIL militants. On the July 23, a Turkish soldier was killed by ISIL militants in the border town of Kilis and Turkey responded by killing an ISIL fighter and destroying a few vehicles. The next day, Turkey launched its first airstrike against ISIL positions and declared that it has decided to open the strategically located Incirlik Air Base for coalition airstrikes against ISIL. Turkish leaders have voiced their commitment to continuing the campaign against the organization. This is a significant change in policy: Ankara joined the anti-ISIL coalition when it was formed last September, but it has been the coalition’s most reluctant member, refusing to get directly involved against the group.

While the “Suruc massacre,” as it has come to be known in Turkey, has galvanized action against ISIL, it also underscores long-term strategic challenges that might still leave Ankara unwilling or unable to fully combat the group. Turkey is facing a perfect storm: a foreign policy quagmire in Syria that poses numerous threats to the Turkish state and society, political polarization between the AKP’s supporters (who tend to be religiously conservative) and its opponents (most — but not all — of whom would call themselves “secularists”), and increasing ethnic tensions between Turks and Kurds. These three tensions present Turkey with its greatest political and security crises since the 1990s and inform its hesitant approach against ISIL.

Out of Strategic Depth: The Failure of Turkish Foreign Policy over Syria

The first and more obvious problem troubling Turkey is the bankruptcy of current Prime Minister and former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s grand strategy of “strategic depth,” the namesake of Davutoglu’s magnum opus, which he published in 2001 as an academic. Usually associated with the notion of neo-Ottomanism (despite Davutoglu’s denial), strategic depth is shaped by two convictions. The first is hardly controversial: The end of the Cold War presented numerous opportunities and challenges for Turkey. The second assumption is more disputed: Turkey can draw upon its cultural and historical inheritance from the Ottoman Empire (as opposed to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular nationalism) to project “soft power” in the greater Middle East and emerge as a regional leader. For a while, riding on the waves of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s popularity in the Middle East that followed from his charged interaction with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Davutoglu’s strategic depth seemed to be working.

Then, Syria happened. Convinced that the Assad regime would crumble under a popular uprising like the governments of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi), Turkey actively supported anti-Assad groups, primarily the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA). Partially for humanitarian purposes and partially to delegitimize Assad further, the AKP also pursued a rather “open” policy with respect to Syrian refugees, whose numbers in Turkey are reported to be in the millions, allowing them sanctuary in Turkey despite very little documentation about their origins and current whereabouts.

As part of its strategy for removing Assad from power, Turkey has been accused of providing support, or turning a blind eye, to ISIL and other jihadist groups. Turkey’s reluctance to directly fight ISIL can be explained by two factors. First, given the costs associated with direct involvement in the ISIL crisis, Ankara is asking for Assad’s removal in return for Turkish cooperation. Second, as the Suruc case displayed, Turkey is extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks from ISIL, especially with its loose refugee and border control practices. Accusations of Turkish support peaked after an incident in January 2014, when gendarmerie stopped three trucks, allegedly full of weapons, en route to Syria, only to be rebuffed by Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT) agents operating the trucks. While there is no hard evidence to support the claim that the trucks were being sent to ISIL (whistleblowers suggested that they were going to al-Qaeda, which makes Jabhat al-Nusra the more likely recipient), it is no secret that Turkey actively supported many anti-Assad groups in Syria. Some of the material provided to these groups has eventually ended up with ISIL.

Ankara’s policy in Syria was a huge gamble that would have paid off handsomely if it actually worked. Turkey would have greater influence over the fate of Syria while also establishing itself as an active promoter of democracy and human rights and amplifying its prestige in the region. Instead, Turkey’s opposition to the Syrian regime and tolerance for ISIL have left it unsuccessful and politically isolated.

For his part, Assad pursued two strategies to increase his chances of political survival. First, he presented a consistent narrative that he was fighting jihadists disguised as revolutionaries, which made him look like the much lesser evil compared to ISIL and the Islamist opposition. Second, he let the Syrian Kurds to go their own way, facilitating the Rojava Revolution, which resulted in essentially autonomous Kurdish cantons in Syria along its border with Turkey. Ignoring the Kurds allowed Assad to concentrate his efforts on fighting the FSA and groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. Through benign neglect of the Kurds, Assad also baited ISIL into fighting the YPG in the north, rather than the Assad regime. The autonomous cantons have created a massive headache for Turkey by allowing for greater PKK–YPG association. In a single stroke, Assad pitted natural rivals ISIL and the YPG against one another and made both Turkey’s problem.

Polarization in Domestic Politics

The Gezi Park protests of 2013 were not the cause but merely a symptom of polarization within the Turkish society. The Syrian crisis and ISIL, in this context, play into the polarization between the supporters and opponents of the AKP. For their critics, the AKP and Erdogan are directly responsible for the rise of ISIL, not to mention incidents such as the Suruc massacre. The polarization within domestic politics has reached a point where the opponents of the AKP no longer need logic and fact to confirm their claims about the AKP–ISIL relationship for the issue to be politically salient. Despite the lack of direct evidence of AKP–ISIL affiliation, the narrative about the AKP’s affinity for ISIL remains alive, thanks to the ever-increasing polarization of the domestic political landscape.

What are the implications of the politicization of Turkey’s ISIL policy in a polarized electorate? Realistically, domestic political pressure from the opposition likely will not end up affecting Turkey’s foreign policy choices under an AKP government. However, conversely, any development involving ISIL is bound to further flame the rift between the supporters and opponents of the AKP.

Turkish Ethnic Politics, the Rise of the YPG, and ISIL

The third problem that the Suruc massacre exposes is rising ethnic tension between nationalist Turks and Kurds. In many other cases, from September 11 to the London subway bombings, terrorist attacks usually brought the citizens of a country together. Not so much in Turkey after Suruc.

The attack took place on Turkish soil and the victims were not only Kurds. They were merely activists with plans to build parks for children in the battle-torn Kobane, not potential recruits for Kurdish militias. Yet, nationalists have treated the suicide bombing as an attack on the YPG, or its Turkish affiliate and Turkish Republic’s long-term nemesis, the PKK, not on Turkey itself.

The rising ethnic tensions are not driven solely by Turkish nationalists. A number of protestors condemning the Suruc attack carried the pictures of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and chanted his name, an absolute “no-no” for Turkish nationalists. Just two days after the suicide attack, the PKK executed two police officers in Sanliurfa in their homes, claiming that they were affiliated with ISIL, an allegation that would appear a little too far-fetched even for the lovers of conspiracy theories. The attacks and their aftermath both demonstrate and further exacerbate a growing “us–them” narrative among both Turkish and Kurdish nationalists.

This is where the method behind ISIL’s madness becomes evident. ISIL has not created the ethnic rift in Turkey, but has proven itself to be extremely competent in scratching Turkey’s open wound. This has not required much effort, especially in the aftermath of the YPG’s successful defense of Kobane. Th YPG seems to be on a winning streak, both on the battlefield and in the global media. Not only has it inflicted numerous defeats on ISIL, it has also successfully defined its struggle, which is both nationalist and political in nature, as a war against the barbaric hordes of ISIL, fought in the name of civilization and humanity.

The fate of Syrian Kurds is increasingly becoming part of Turkey’s own Kurdish question. The Kurds of Turkey as well as the pro-Kurdish left-leaning ethnic Turks have identified fully with the cause of the Rojava Revolution, which is usually projected both as a nationalist independence movement as well as a political (left-leaning) mobilization effort. Last fall, when Kobane was about to fall, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish left-leaning HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) called for nationwide protests to compel the government to take a more active role in helping Kobane. The protests led to more than 50 dead, only to be called off by the HDP following sympathetic statements from the government. When the HDP won an electoral victory in June, gaining almost 13 percent of the national vote and 80 MPs, it continued to make references to Kobane, suggesting that Syrian Kurds should be supported in their fight against ISIL.

The HDP wants Turkey to do more about ISIL, but not at the expense of the YPG. However, the YPG and PKK are close associates. If the YPG gains further international support and legitimacy in its fight against ISIL, the PKK will end up with a stronger hand down the road. All this puts Turkey between a rock and a hard place with respect to its ISIL policy. Turkey may have incentives to do more against ISIL, but further intervention could allow the YPG to grow even stronger. If it gets involved in the Syrian civil war, Ankara would prefer to degrade both ISIL and the YPG, but this seems like an unattainable policy considering the support that Syrian Kurds have secured both inside Turkey and in the international community.

Conclusion

Stuck between pressures to take a more active position against both ISIL and Kurdish nationalism, Ankara has chosen to target both ISIL and the PKK, with Turkish F-16s launching simultaneous strikes against ISIL in Syria and PKK camps in Northern Iraq. Turkey is attempting to balance against the rise of YPG/PKK influence if it increases the pressure on ISIL. The PKK’s recent attacks on Turkish security forces allow the AKP to directly target the organization without facing strong domestic opposition. One can even argue that AKP may even boost its votes by attracting nationalist voters in a likely early election this fall.

However, the underlying contradictions will still remain. The more Turkey does to degrade ISIL, the more powerful the YPG and PKK will become. Meanwhile, targeting the PKK could end the peace process for good, potentially fueling tensions in a country that is polarized on both ethnic and political fault lines. For Ankara, the ISIL crisis is not merely a crisis about ISIL. Turkey needs to tackle ISIL in the midst of numerous long-term domestic and regional challenges.

 

Burak Kadercan is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and specializes in territorial and religious conflicts, the relationship between state-formation and production of military power, and empires. His scholarly work has appeared in numerous outlets including International Security. At the Naval War College, Kadercan lectures on the Islamic State as well as the legacies of the Ottoman Empire on present-day politics of the Middle East. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

 

Photo credit: Marc Müller