After resisting for years, Turkey reluctantly joined the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in July 2015. Turkey’s recognition of the threat that ISIS poses along its own borders convinced Ankara its own security is in danger. Turkey’s misguided anger resulted in stronger air strikes against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), up until now an ally in the battle against ISIS, instead of against ISIS due to Turkey’s fear of Kurdish nationalism and the growing presence of Kurdish parties in the Turkish parliament. As ISIS poses the largest threat to Turkey’s security, the Turkish government must shift its focus from air strikes against Kurdish targets and begin targeting ISIS strongholds.
Throughout the United States’ year-long campaign in Iraq and Syria against ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, the U.S. government has sought to increase Turkey’s role in the conflict, as they believed the Turkish Republic key to destroying the terrorist group. Turkey has been reluctant to get involved due to the constant disagreement between the Turkey and the U.S. over who should be the main target: Turkey contends that Syria and its president, Bashar al Assad, is most dangerous, while the United States maintains that ISIS poses the primary threat. In July, Turkey finally joined the U.S.-led coalition that carries out air strikes against ISIS in Syria, allowing the United States to launch military strikes from Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. Turkey decided to join the coalition as it realized ISIS proves to be a formidable threat along its borders in Syria and Iraq and could threaten Turkey’s own security.
In late July, Turkey then deepened its involvement by staging its own airstrikes against ISIS. Unfortunately, Turkish air strikes also targeted Kurdish Worker Party (PKK) strongholds and are now targeting Kurdish insurgents more than are ISIS. It has become clear that Turkey’s incentive for further participating in the U.S.-led fight does not center on defeating ISIS or restoring regional stability; rather, its main objective is national in nature, and is aimed at punishing the PKK.
Turkey’s air strikes against the PKK are a direct consequence of the Turkish government’s perception of Kurdish nationalism as a threat to its sovereignty. Kurds across the Middle East dream of an independent Kurdish state, a notion that Ankara vehemently opposes. Within Turkey, the PKK has long fought for more autonomy; however, Turkey vowed never to allow such a state to be created as Ankara views the political party as a terrorist group. These disputes have lasted over 35 years, and are known for their violence. After nearly four years of a peace process that would have ended this conflict, neither the Turkish government nor Kurdish leaders were willing to negotiate. Oddly, it was the Turkish government under President Erdogan (as prime minster) that had gone the furthest to seek peace with the Kurds in Turkey. However, in 20XX, Mr. Erdogan announced that the peace process is over, and senior PKK commanders reinforced this by promising to retaliate against Turkish forces.
Yet outside of these negotiations, other Kurdish voices found their way into the political mainstream through winning a landmark 13 percent of the vote in this year’s parliamentary elections. It was this same election that lost Mr. Erdogan’s party the parliamentary majority. This clearly angered President Erdogan, as it disrupted his desire to create a U.S.-styled presidential system in which he would have more power, and it reinforced Turkish paranoia about the rising power of the Kurdish community.
This paranoia explains Turkey’s initial reluctance to get involved with the fight against ISIS. As the Kurdish community transcends borders, Turkey is becoming increasingly concerned about the advancement of Kurds in Syria, and the coziness between the U.S. and Kurdish military groups. The Syrian Kurds are led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an off-shoot of the PKK. The People’s Protection Units (YPG), essentially the military arm of the PYD, proved to be the United States’ most effective ally in Syria in fighting the Islamic State. While the United States and Turkey both consider the PKK to be a terrorist group, only Turkey classifies the PYD as terrorists.
The PYD receives significant support from the United States in the form of air strikes in return for assisting in the fight against ISIS. Turkey fears that the success of Syrian Kurds could incite a resurgence of its own Kurdish population’s nationalistic inclinations. Consequently, it seems the Turkish government has made “combatting the Kurds their priority.” Turkey perceives Kurdish nationalism, not the rise of Islamic State, to be its most damaging security threat – and its airstrikes against the Kurds are the indisputable proof of this.
Mr. Erdogan’s strategy of using the air strikes against ISIS as a smokescreen for attacks on Kurdish targets is an effort to “win back votes of nationalists who oppose Kurdish autonomy.” President Erdogan seeks to punish Turkey’s Kurdish minority because of its stymying his domestic political ambitions. ISIS is a more formidable threat to Turkey than the Kurdish groups because Islamic State has taken over large swath of Iraq and Syria through nefarious methods, with the end goal of creating an Islamic caliphate. ISIS employs ruthless fighting tactics and has no real qualms about what groups it targets. However, Turkey continues to focus more on Kurdish nationalism even as ISIS closes in on its border.
Turkey is erroneously targeting the PKK and its Syrian affiliates more aggressively than the Islamic State, even as it proves to be the more perilous threat. Turkey’s impetus for targeting the Kurds (both the PYD and PKK) is due to the recent advancement of the Kurdish group fighting against ISIS. Compounding this paranoia is the fact that the United States is supporting the Syrian Kurds, who are closely linked to the PKK. Targeting the Kurds is also politically motivated, as Mr. Erdogan blames the recent electoral success of Kurdish parties
in the June elections for his failed to obtain a parliamentary majority. This is a mistake; Turkey is indirectly helping ISIS because by targeting the Kurds it is taking out the coalition’s most aggressive and productive force against the Islamic State. Ankara must soon realize that their anger is misguided and that it was a strategic error to mainly target the PKK and not focus solely on Islamic State.
Turkey’s targeting of the Kurds will have serious consequences for both Turkey and the larger Middle East. Such targeting is complicating the fight against ISIS and making it more difficult for the U.S.-led coalition to defeat the terrorist group. Turkey must realize that, while Kurdish nationalism is a challenge to the Turkish government, the more dangerous threat is actually the Islamic State. Turkey must shift its focus from air strikes against Kurdish targets and begin targeting ISIS strongholds in a more efficient and aggressive manner.