Attacks on ISIS and PKK to shape Turkey’s stance in Middle East
Istanbul - The Turkish government says its military action against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq demonstrates the country’s power to shape events in the region. But some observers say Ankara’s show of force might have weakened, not strengthened, Turkey’s stance in the Middle East.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, meeting with Turkish newspaper editors on July 26th, said Ankara’s action had created “new conditions” in the region.
“We want everyone to read and assess those new conditions created by our Syria and Iraq operations once again correctly and review their own position accordingly,” Davutoğlu said, according to an account of the meeting in the Hurriyet Daily News. “The presence of a Turkey that can use its force effectively can lead to consequences which can change the game in Syria, Iraq and the entire region; everyone should see that.”
Turkey, a NATO member and European Union candidate country with a powerful army and the 17th biggest economy worldwide, regards itself as a role model for other countries in the Middle East and a natural leader for the region. But Ankara’s efforts to project influence by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni groups as well as political differences with several countries have led to a growing isolation in recent years.
Davutoğlu spoke after Turkey attacked ISIS positions in Syria for the first time and agreed to open its air bases to the United States and other allies to conduct air strikes on the jihadist group within Syria. The events marked a major turnaround for Turkey, which had been reluctant to join the international military campaign against ISIS.
The shift brought Turkey closer to the position of the United States, Ankara’s key Western partner, while cross-border operations by Turkey’s fleet of modern F-16 fighter jets demonstrated that Ankara is determined to take drastic action if it sees its national interests and security at stake.
Davutoğlu said Turkey faced threats from ISIS and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) at the same time. The PKK has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in south-eastern Anatolia since 1984. A ceasefire, in place since 2013, has all but collapsed as the PKK attacked Turkish security forces in the wake of the death of 32 people in a July 20th suicide attack that the PKK partly blamed on Ankara. In response, Turkey bombed PKK positions in northern Iraq.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry brushed off protests by the Iraqi government that criticised the raids on PKK positions in the north as an assault on its sovereignty. Pointing to the long-standing presence of PKK, regarded as a terrorist organisation by much of the international community, in northern Iraq, the Foreign Ministry said July 31st that complaints from a country that could not control its borders were unacceptable.
Even though the government in Ankara is talking of a show of strength by Turkey in the region, recent events could shake domestic stability in the country itself and end up eroding its stance abroad, said Behlul Özkan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Marmara University. He said the raids against ISIS carried the risk of provoking revenge attacks of the jihadist group inside Turkey. “ISIS has become a domestic threat,” he said. “That weakens foreign policy.”
Veysel Ayhan, director of the International Middle East Peace Research Center (IMPR), a think-tank in Ankara, said domestic dynamics carried another danger. He said rising tension between the Turkish government on one hand and Kurds and Alevis on the other could turn into a crisis “that could weaken Turkey’s role in the region in the medium term”.
Relations with the West could also suffer. Attacks on PKK positions, launched at the same time as air strikes against ISIS, triggered concerns that Ankara was using the campaign against ISIS as an excuse to step up its fight against Kurdish rebels as well.
Even though NATO sent a message of support to Turkey, some Western leaders, including German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, publicly warned the Turkish government not to end the peace process aimed at finding a political solution to the long-running Kurdish conflict. Germany and the United Kingdom upgraded official travel warnings for Turkey, pointing to a danger of terrorist attacks.
Turkey’s action against the PKK has clearly irritated its allies, Özkan said. The US, for example, has been supporting PKK-linked Kurdish forces in Syria with air strikes in order to weaken ISIS. Some German politicians accused the Turkish government of increasing pressure on the Kurds for domestic gains.
“The West is definitely shocked,” Özkan said. While Western countries issued official statements of support for Turkey, they expressed their discomfort “behind closed doors”, he added. “If this continues, there will be real problems with the West and the US.”
There are also signs that Davutoğlu’s warning to Middle Eastern countries to take note of Turkey’s show of strength may not have the desired effect. The embattled government in Syria put a question mark behind Turkey’s stated determination to fight Islamic extremists and asked whether Ankara’s real aim was to “hit the Kurds in Syria and Iraq”.
Syria’s backer Iran, another Turkish neighbour and a regional rival, said Ankara might have committed a serious miscalculation that could cost the country dearly. Hassan Firouzabadi, Iran’s chief of General Staff, said it was a “strategic mistake” by Turkey to attack Kurdish groups because this would strengthen ISIS.