Syria, ISIS and the Kurds: Turkey’s Changing Positions in a Region of Uncertainties

By Esra Bakkalbaşıoğlu and Michael Degerald PhD Candidates
Interdisciplinary Near and Middle Eastern Studies University of Washington

Turkey-ISIS relations changed drastically in the last six days. On July 20th, a devastating bombing in Suruç brought the attention of the world to southern Turkey, where 30+ people were killed by a suicide bomber, with ISIS believed to be behind the attack (1). The target of the suicide bomber was members of youth wing of Social Party of the Oppressed (ESP) and Socialist Youth Associations Federation (SGDF) that were giving a press statement before crossing the Suruç-Kobane border for a three-day rebuilding project in Kobane. The Turkish government condemned the attack and on the 23rd of July carried out airstrikes across the border in Syria against ISIS targets for the first time  (2). Turkey also responded with attempts to tighten security at the border (3), which succeeded in catching ISIS fighters trying to sneak across the border into Turkey (4). On the 25th of July, Turkish jets started to hit Kurdish militants in Iraq and ISIS targets in Syria simultaneously. These targets weren’t attacked evenly, and apparently Kurds were targeted for more than ISIS. Indeed, a popular hashtag used in response to these events was #TurkeyAttackKurdsNotISIS. This bold step raises questions about how things arrived at this point- who’s aligned with whom? On what basis? We’ll dig back in time to look at how Turkey’s position on the Syrian conflict kept the country on the edge of simultaneous armed conflict with both ISIS and Kurdish groups (the PKK and YPG).

The war in Syria between those seeking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian state he controls has stretched into its fourth year, and neighboring states like Lebanon (5), Jordan (6), Turkey (7) and Iraq (8) have already been dealing with the waves of refugees. These same states have been making decisions about if, and when to engage militarily. The porous border between Lebanon and Syria has allowed a large number of militias and fighters to enter and exit almost at will. There have been clashes between the Lebanese Army and various militias, especially in Tripoli and Qalamoun but the Lebanese Army has not been heavily involved in Syria. Primarily, the Lebanese Army is struggling with the fact that Hizbullah has proven to be far more effective at keeping control of Lebanese territory than the army is (9). Jordan, to the south, has received more than a million refugees and did join the alliance to attack ISIS, sending fighter pilots to bomb ISIS positions. Iraq had reached some level of stability years after the wrongheaded  overthrow of Saddam Hussein by the USA, but the growing presence of Sunni jihadis like ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and others knocked Iraq out of this fragile stability and it plunged back into chaos. It is Turkey, however, that provides the most complex relationship with ISIS of the four. While little if anything can be said that Jordan or Lebanon tacitly or openly support ISIS, Turkey’s stand in the Syrian case is more complicated and hard to understand due to different reasons combining domestic politics with international relations. One can state three different phases of Turkey’s Syria policy since the beginning of the war. The changing relations between Ankara and Damascus governments have a determining role on Turkey-ISIS-Kurdish relation as well.

Assad or ISIS

In March 2011, mass protests erupted in different cities of Syria against the Assad regime. The protests turned bloody when security forces opened fire on protesting crowd in Dera’a. Whereas various groups were steadfast in their support of Assad despite intensifying violence, Turkey abandoned Assad fairly quickly. In the first half of 2011, Turkey tried to be a negotiator between Western powers and Assad, as well as between Assad and the Syrian public. The Turkish government proposed political support during the elections and be a political buffer zone between Syria and Western powers if Assad government accept to start a reformation process (10). This was the same period of time during which Hillary Clinton was calling Assad a reformer who would respond appropriately to the demands of his people (11). The last negotiations between the Turkish government and the Assad regime took place on 9th of August, 2011 in Damascus. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu later explained that the Assad government agreed on a 14-point reform list, but did not implement it. On the 18th of the same month, President Obama said that Assad should step down (12). This marked the end of Turkey-Assad negotiations. One month after the last meeting between the Ankara and Damascus governments, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a speech in Cairo University before his meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood leaders. During his speech he followed Obama’s lines and described the Assad government as one which kills its own citizens, attacking cities and slaughtering civilians that no one can be friends with (13).

After the sudden break of relations with the Assad regime, Turkey tried to have a role in shaping Syria’s future by supporting various opposition forces. This period has been marked by Turkey’s allowing opposition fighters to pass through its borders even then in the first year of the war, before the opposition became dominated by Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS (14). The rise of ISIS meant the rise of an extremist but also Sunni Islamist political movement against the Alawite-dominated government of Syria. For Turkey, it symbolized a dangerous but new ally force in the changing political ground of the region as Turkey could play a role maybe not in the whole Middle East, but at least in the Sunni part of the region. Turkey took the risk. The dangerous partnership made Turkey the de facto entrance point to Syrian war for foreign ISIS sympathizers plus off-country training and preparation base of the movement.

As early as May 2012, the MIT ( Turkey’s intelligence service equivalent to the CIA) had already started to train members of the Syrian rebels (15). The MIT was apparently shipping weapons across the border as well (16).  Questions swirled in 2013 about the use of chemical weapons in the war, with accusations flying in all directions that either rebels or regime soldiers had used chemical weapons in Ghouta against civilians, among other places. Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh penned a controversial piece claiming that Turkish intelligence had armed Jabhat al-Nusra with Sarin, citing a combination of news reports of Syrians detained in Turkey near the border with Sarin and anonymous government and intelligence officials (17). Hersh also claims that the US made a “rat line” to move weapons seized in Libya through southern Turkey to Syrian rebels fighting against Assad. Hersh claims that Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan wanted some kind of event in the Syrian War to cross the “red line” that would prompt the USA to intervene militarily. These claims have never been proven true largely due to being based in the statements of intelligence officials who remain anonymous. That said, a strong case was presented against Hersh’s account, insisting that it was the Assad Regime and not Jabhat al-Nusra, backed by Turkey, that produced and used the Sarin in question (18). Whether or not Turkey’s role is as Hersh describes it, there is other evidence that an agent from Turkey’s MIT was caught in Mosul, supposedly embedded with ISIS forces there (19). Most recently, a raid by US forces that killed an ISIS leader apparently netted a lot of evidence that he had extensive contacts with Turkish officials (20). In May 2015, Cumhuriyet newspaper published videos showing ammunition carried in MIT trucks in January 2014 that the state claimed to be humanitarian aid (21). It must also be mentioned that ISIS has been very successful smuggling oil through Turkey, something that opposition MP Ali Ediboğlu insists the Turkish state must know about (22). This ironically parallels the silent cooperation of the Assad Regime, which also is knowingly part of a chain where it receives oil from ISIS through a middleman named George Haswani (23). ISIS also profits handsomely from smuggling of looted antiquities through Turkey (24), and the total trade between Turkey and ISIS-controlled areas has gone up while Turkey’s total trade with Syria has been badly hit by the war (25). It is thus clear that ISIS’ finances could not be what they are without this quiet cooperation by both Turkey and Syria. Whatever hostilities exist on the surface between Turkey, the Assad regime and ISIS should not distract us from the more complex reality that reveals itself if we look closer.

The rapprochement between Turkish government and the ISIS caused deep discontent on the Assad side. In June 2012, Assad gave an interview to a Turkish journalist and accused Erdogan of interfering Syria’s internal affairs (26). In May 2013, there was a bloody terror attack in a Turkish border town, Reyhanlı. The bombing killed 51, and is thought to have been carried out by Turks contracted by Assad government. The Turkish government announced the arrest of 9 men responsible for planning the bombing (27). The ongoing dispute between Assad and Erdogan continued and in 2015, Assad openly blamed Erdogan for being personally responsible for the Syrian chaos and rise of the ISIS in the region (28). More important than that, the Assad regime made a strategic move against Turkey by supporting Kurdish movements in the North of the country, close to the Turkish border. Syrian Kurds started to establish their own semi-independent cantons that became a serious domestic as well as international challenge for Turkey.

Turkey, Kurds and the ISIS

On the 16th of July 2013, members of Al-Nusra front attacked a patrol of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that had control of Ras Al-Ayn. This was the starting point of the YPG-ISIS clashes that are still ongoing. The conflict between Kurds and ISIS is clearly a domestic issue for Turkey as much as an international one. Under the new circumstances, openly supporting ISIS would mean an anti-Kurdish stand that would strengthen and legitimize the Kurdish opposition in Turkey. On the other hand, a Kurdish victory, in the region would increase demands or even encourage Kurds in Turkey to follow the same footsteps. This is exactly how the Turkish government reacted to the three Kurdish cantons declaring autonomy between December 2013 and January 2014. If they win their fight against the ISIS, Kurds could be widely accepted as independence fighters, undermining the Turkish government position that Kurds are separatists and terrorists not to be trusted. This was the reason why one of the main conditions of Turkey during its negotiation with the US for a possible coalition against ISIS (29) was the creation of a buffer zone that will allow the Turkish government to control or if seen necessary strike the Kurdish cantons. Before the recent changes, a possible scenario was that the Turkish government will support the ISIS to win the war against Kurds in the northern Syria. An ISIS victory in northern Syria would a) weaken the YPG and Kurdish cantons and reduce a risk of Kurds in Turkey to speak up in the future and b) strengthen the Turkish position within the Western coalition against the ISIS and will make it easier to find support for the creation of a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria/ISIS. This buffer zone would weaken the power and independence of the Kurdish cantons as well as Kurdish armed groups (30).

Thus, ISIS was not winning the war against the YPG and a possible YPG victory was a nightmare for Turkey as it would strengthen Kurds and create new cross-border coalitions between Kurdish groups. The general election of June 2015 was a surprise and total disappointment for the AKP (Justice and Development Party) that had been governing the country since 2002. The AKP lost 69 seats and the Kurdish party called People’s Democratic Party (HDP) won 53 new seats. The new distribution of seats in the Parliament made it impossible for the AKP to govern alone and necessitated a coalition government. The AKP needs to increase its vote moving forward before a possible early election that might be held in November 2015. The ISIS attack against socialists going to Kobane in the Kurdish border town Suruç  gave the government the perfect opportunity. President Erdoğan condemned the attack as a terrorist attack against Turkey even though these groups have been considered as pro-Kurdish by the government. By politically hijacking the attacks, the AKP government moved toward its goal that the YPG-ISIS war could not achieve by itself. They sought to get rid of a possible cross-border Kurdish alliance and ISIS simultaneously, killing two birds with one stone. They planned to do this by getting the support of the Western allies, especially the US. Three days after the Suruç attack, Turkey agreed to grant US access to Incirlik air base located in southern Turkey in exchange for the US tacit agreement on a buffer zone and no-fly zone, a crucial change on the level of international relations. Five days after the attack, Turkey started to conduct air strikes targeting both ISIS and the PKK, with some pointing out that the majority of the attacks have actually been against the Kurds, not ISIS (31). Patrick Cockburn even went so far to claim that this may be the largest mistake the USA has made in its policy toward the Middle East since the 2003 invasion of Iraq (32).

In conclusion, the Turkish state, especially the AK Party who holds so much influence inside it, has played a risky game for some time. Various journalists and commentators have all discussed Turkey’s apparent willingness to tolerate the presence of ISIS/IS/ داعش as long as they were suppressing the presence of the Kurds in Syria. After the June 2015 election, President Erdoğan stated that Turkey would never allow the creation of an independent state on its southern border (33). He also accused Kurdish forces of ethnic cleansing in Syria (34). Today, Turkey is continuing to play a very dangerous game. After opening borders to the ISIS members and letting them to recruit and gain sympathy of religious extremist groups in Turkey, it will be very difficult for Turkey to ensure stability and peace back within its own territories let alone in the cross-border region. Plus, by attacking Kurds, the government risks plunging Turkey back to the 1990s when the PKK-Turkish were at war and the number of terror attacks and civilian casualties reached its peak. It should not be lost on anyone that these bold attacks are being carried out by a temporary government who suffered a setback in the polls not long before. Finally, given that the YPG forces have been one of the most resilient and effective fighting forces against ISIS, the Turkish state is weakening one of ISIS’ main enemies.

Endnotes:

1) ABC News. 2015. ‘Turkish Officials Identify Suspect In Deadly Suruc Suicide Blast’. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-22/turkish-officials-identify-suspect-in-deadly-suruc-suicide-blast/6638256

2) Hurriyetdailynews.com, 2015. ‘INTERNATIONAL – As It Happened: Turkish Army Engages In First Gunfight With ISIL After Soldier Killed On Border’. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/as-it-happened-turkish-army-engages-in-first-gunfight-with-isil-after-soldier-killed-on-border.aspx?PageID=238&NID=85843&NewsCatID=359

3) Uras, Umut. 2015. ‘Turkey To Boost Border Security After ‘ISIL’ Attack’. Aljazeera.Com. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/07/turkey-bolster-border-security-suruc-attack-150721000033031.html

4) Hurriyetdailynews.com,. 2015. ‘INTERNATIONAL – As It Happened: Turkish Army Engages In First Gunfight With ISIL After Soldier Killed On Border’. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/as-it-happened-turkish-army-engages-in-first-gunfight-with-isil-after-soldier-killed-on-border.aspx?PageID=238&NID=85843&NewsCatID=359

5) Syrianrefugees.eu,. 2015. ‘Lebanon | Syrian Refugees’. http://syrianrefugees.eu/?page_id=72

6) Syrianrefugees.eu,. 2015. ‘Jordan | Syrian Refugees’. http://syrianrefugees.eu/?page_id=87

7) Ferris, Elizabeth. 2015. ‘What Turkey’S Open-Door Policy Means For Syrian Refugees’. The Brookings Institution. http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2015/07/08-turkey-syrian-refugees-kirisci-ferris

8) Syrianrefugees.eu,. 2015. ‘Iraq | Syrian Refugees’. http://syrianrefugees.eu/?page_id=83

9) Bacchi, Umberto. 2015. ‘Isis In Lebanon: Hezbollah And Lebanese Army Pincer Islamic State Jihadists In Qalamoun Mountains’. International Business Times UK. http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/isis-lebanon-hezbollah-lebanese-army-pincer-islamic-state-jihadists-qalamoun-mountains-1505210

10) “Esad’a Dedik Ki,” HÜRRİYET – TÜRKİYE’NİN AÇILIŞ SAYFASI, accessed July 13, 2015, http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/planet/23369504.asp

11) Goodenough, Patrick. 2011. ‘Syrian President Assad Regarded As a ‘Reformer,’ Clinton Says’. http://cnsnews.com/news/article/syrian-president-assad-regarded-reformer-clinton-says

12) Hersh, Jashua. 2011. Obama: Syrian President Assad Must Step Down’. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/18/obama-assad_n_930229.html

13) “BBC Turkce – Haberler – Erdoğan: Esad’a halkı da inanmıyor, biz de,” accessed July 13, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler/2011/09/110914_erdogan_syria.shtml

14) Weiss, Michael. ‘Syrian Rebels Say Turkey Is Arming And Training Them – Telegraph Blogs’. News – Telegraph Blogs. http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/michaelweiss/100159613/syrian-rebels-say-turkey-is-arming-and-training-them/

15) Ibid.

16) Pamuk, Humeyra, and Nick Tattersall. 2015. ‘Exclusive: Turkish Intelligence Helped Ship Arms To Syrian Islamist Rebel Areas’. Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/05/21/us-mideast-crisis-turkey-arms-idUSKBN0O61L220150521

17) Hersh, Seymour. 2015. ‘LRB · Seymour M. Hersh · The Red Line And The Rat Line: Erdoğan And The Syrian Rebels’. London Review Of Books. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n08/seymour-m-hersh/the-red-line-and-the-rat-line

18) Higgins, Eliot, and Dan Kaszeta. 2014. ‘It’s Clear That Turkey Was Not Involved In The Chemical Attack On Syria | Eliot Higgins And Dan Kaszeta’. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/22/allegation-false-turkey-chemical-attack-syria

19) Anfenglish.com,. 2015. ‘ANF | Ajansa Nûçeyan A Firatê’. http://anfenglish.com/kurdistan/turkish-mit-agent-within-isis-captured-in-mosul

20) Chulov, Martin. 2015. ‘Turkey Sends In Jets As Syria’S Agony Spills Over Every Border’. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/26/isis-syria-turkey-us?CMP=share_btn_tw

21) Pamuk, Humeyra and Nick Tattersall. 2015. ‘Exclusive: Turkish intelligence helped ship arms to Syrian Islamist Rebel Areas’. Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/05/21/us-mideast-crisis-turkey-arms-idUSKBN0O61L220150521 22)

Vilmaz, Guler. 2014. ‘Opposition MP Says ISIS Is Selling Oil In Turkey – Al-Monitor: The Pulse Of The Middle East’. Al-Monitor. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/tr/business/2014/06/turkey-syria-isis-selling-smuggled-oil.html

23) Business Insider. 2015. ‘REVEALED: The Oil Middleman Between The Syrian Regime And ISIS’. http://www.businessinsider.com/revealed-the-oil-middleman-between-the-syrian-regime-and-isis-2015-3?IR=T

24) Erciyes, Cem. 2014. ‘Islamic State Makes Millions From Stolen Antiquities – Al-Monitor: The Pulse Of The Middle East’. Al-Monitor. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/tr/security/2014/09/turkey-syria-iraq-isis-artifacts-smuggling.html 25) Erkus, Golkhan. 2014. ‘Turkish Border Smuggling Thrives Under IS – Al-Monitor: The Pulse Of The Middle East’. Al-Monitor. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/business/2014/08/turkey-syria-iraq-isis-export-increase.html

26) Cakirozer, Utku. 2012. ‘Esad: Erdogan’a Vahiy mi Indi?’ http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/koseyazisi/354604/Esad__Erdogan_a_vahiy_mi_indi_.html

27) Fraser, Susan. 2015. ‘9 Detained In Car Bombings In Turkish Border Town’. The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/12/turkey-car-bombings-9-detained-turkish-border-town_n_3262727.html

28) Rudaw.com. 2015. ‘Assad: Erdogan Is ‘personally Responsible’ for Syrian Chaos’ Rudawhttp://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/syria/260120151

29) Soncan, Emre. 2015. ‘Turkey agrees to grant US access to İncirlik Air Base’. Today’s Zaman. http://www.todayszaman.com/diplomacy_turkey-agrees-to-grant-us-access-to-incirlik-air-base_394422.html and Tisdall, Simon. 2015. ‘US Deal With Turkey Over Isis May Go Beyond Simple Use Of An Airbase’. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/24/us-deal-turkey-isis-incirlik-airbase-erdogan-obama?CMP=share_btn_tw

30) Geerdink, Frederike. 2015. ‘Erdoğan’ın Kirli Planı Bu Mu: IŞİD Kobani’ye, Türk Askeri Suriye’ye.’ Diken, http://www.diken.com.tr/kurtlere-gore-erdoganin-kirli-plani-isid-kobaniye-turk-askeri-suriyeye/

31) Cole, Juan. 2015. ‘Turkey’s New “War On Terror” Mainly Targeting Kurds’. Informed Comment. http://www.juancole.com/2015/07/turkeys-mainly-targeting.html

32) Cockburn, Patrick. 2015. ‘Is This America’s Worst Error In The Middle East Since The Iraq War?’. The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/turkey-conflict-with-kurds-was-approving-air-strikes-against-the-pkk-americas-worst-error-in-the-middle-east-since-the-iraq-war-10417381.html

33) Yahoo News. 2015. ‘Turkey Will ‘Never Allow’ Kurdish State In Syria Warns Erdogan’. http://news.yahoo.com/turkey-never-allow-kurdish-state-syria-warns-erdogan-133603673.html

34) Pamuk, Humeyra, and Umit Bektas. 2015. ‘Turkey Sees Signs Of ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ By Kurdish Fighters In Syria’. Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/16/us-mideast-crisis-kurds-turkey-idUSKBN0OW1SA20150616

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