Attacks on ISIS and PKK to shape Turkey’s stance in Middle East

Friday 07/08/2015

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.