Over the last few weeks, the United States has escalated its offensive against ISIS, also referred to as ISIL, Daesh, and the Islamic State. As ISIS continues to launch attacks in Iraq and Syria, notably the siege of Kobani, a town on the Syria-Turkey border and home to a predominately Kurdish population, the US and other NATO members have urged Turkey to play a larger role in countering ISIS advances. Turkey has the opportunity to emerge as a leader to the region and demonstrate good governance by taking a stronger stance against ISIS and upholding the peace process with its Kurdish minority.
While Turkey holds a unique position to influence the larger political dynamics of the region, as well as the outcome of the Kobani offensive, Turkish leaders have disagreed with the US over what actions should be taken- and who they should be taken against. As one US military official noted, the US and Turkey are involved in a “six-sided war” that includes ISIS; Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government; the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, a Kurdish rebel group; the Kurdish minorities in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey; the Free Syrian Army, a moderate opposition group; and the international coalition including the US. While the US is only targeting ISIS, Turkey is split between its confrontations with the PKK and ISIS as well as Assad’s Syrian regime.
Turkey and the US both seem to agree that the creation of a new force in Syria comprised of moderate Syrian rebels, such as the Free Syrian Army, to oppose Assad’s regime and ISIS could help solve the conflict. However, Turkey insists that the new force would have to be distinct from the PKK and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the PKK’s Syrian affiliate. The PKK has been fighting a guerrilla war against Turkey for more than 30 years and is at the center of the current resistance in Kobani. Some analysts have argued that the PPK has been the strongest opposition to ISIS so far, particularly in Iraq, which may make cooperation with the organization indispensable to a successful defeat.
Turkey is integral to regional dynamics due to its powerful military force and ability to strongly emerge against ISIS in Kobani and to assist the US and other NATO forces through the use of air force bases. However, Turkey is embroiled in its internal feud with its Kurdish minority and the PKK. Turkey’s preoccupation with its fight against the PKK was demonstrated on Monday when it carried out airstrikes against Kurdish insurgents in southeastern Turkey.
So what type of strategy will Turkey adopt? Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has maintained that fighting Assad’s regime is a priority over fighting ISIS. Further, he publically equated the PKK to ISIS, demonstrating the reach of the Turkish government’s animosity toward the rebel group. It seems, then, that Turkey must first recognize that removing ISIS as a threat is a critical priority to its own interests, not just the region’s.
The recent attacks on Kobani have raised the stakes for Turkey, with mortar shells crossing Turkey’s Syrian border and Turkish Kurds outraged over Turkey’s refusal to allow Kurdish fighters to cross the border into Syria or to provide military assistance. Violent protests in Ankara, in addition to Western pressure for support, have given Turkey an incentive to assist those fighting against ISIS. If Kobani does fall, Turkey is likely to face even greater backlash from its Kurdish minority. So far, however, this hasn’t been enough to push Turkey to action against ISIS.
Turkey faces an opportunity to temporarily set aside its conflict with PKK, or at least to uphold the cease-fire agreement, and work with the US at Kobani and in the broader conflict. Even al-Qaeda has condemned ISIS for its brutality and extremism, and Turkey needs to recognize that it cannot conflate ISIS and the PKK simply because it perceives both as a threat to Turkey’s stability.
If agreed to by Turkey, integrating PKK affiliates in Syria with moderate rebel groups could create an effective opposition against ISIS and Assad’s regime. Allowing the US to use Turkish air bases to train moderate Syrian rebels could also help accomplish Turkey’s proposed solution of creating a third-party moderate force. Turkey has the opportunity to step up to the plate and demonstrate good governance as a regional leader by focusing on the threats that extend beyond its own borders. Turkey faces a hard choice, but will hopefully recognize the importance of its role in upholding the rule of law and supporting peace in the region.