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Turkey, IS, US, Syria

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • August 14, 2015

    There is a sudden and dramatic change in Turkey’s policy towards the Islamic State (IS). For long, Turkey has permitted, and even facilitated, the flow of young men and women from various countries to Syria to join the IS. It has bought oil from the IS and even permitted the shipment of arms into Syria meant for the IS. But, on July 24, Turkey started bombing IS targets in Syria and agreed to the pending US request for use of the Incirlik air base for bombing operations against the IS.

    What is the reason for Turkey’s change of policy and what might be the calculations behind it? The official explanation, endorsed by the majority of the Turkish media, is that the July 20 attack carried out by an IS suicide bomber in Suruc, a town hardly 10 kms from the Syrian border, resulting in the death of 33 with over a 100 wounded, left Turkey with no choice but to hit back at the IS. The victims of the attack were young Kurds whom both Turkey and IS hate for different reasons. In Turkey’s view, Kurdish youth support autonomy/independence for their people. For its part, the IS viewed the youth assembled at the centre as planning to help re-construct Kobane, a town in Iraqi Kurdistan which the Kurdish fighters recently prevented the IS from capturing.

    While a majority of the Turkish media and even the international media have concluded that the young man who carried out the attack was sent by the IS, there are reasons to suspend judgment until more evidence comes in. The Turkish government interrupted the Twitter service temporarily and forbade publication of photos or videos of the attack for a while. IS, normally prompt in acknowledging and boasting about such operations, has not yet made any claim for the attack. Some observers in Turkey believe that Turkish intelligence might have been behind the attack.

    Apart from a change in policy towards IS, there was change in Turkish policy towards the PKK (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan, Kurdistan Workers Party) as well. PKK, founded in 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan, has conducted, since its inception but with interruptions from time to time, an armed struggle in Turkey seeking autonomy/independence for the Kurds. There are 14.5 million Kurds in Turkey according to the CIA Fact Book. In fact, Turkey accounts for 50 per cent of Kurds in the region, with Iran and Iraq accounting for six million each and Syria for two million. (Population figures for Kurds are much contested and the CIA estimates might be reliable.) Ocalan has been in jail since 1999. He was apprehended while on a visit to Nairobi. Kenya, under pressure from the US, extradited him to Turkey. Ocalan was tried and sentenced to death but, in order to qualify for EU membership, Turkey abolished the death penalty. Turkey has been conducting negotiations with Ocalan and in March 2013 Ocalan announced the end of the armed struggle, a cease fire, and peace talks.

    That was the time Prime Minister Erdogan was preparing the country for his candidature in the 2014 Presidential election. The agreement with Ocalan helped project Erdogan as a leader with vision who can put an end to the Kurdish revolt, which has cost about 40,000 lives. Erdogan won the 2014 election in the first round itself with 51.79 per cent of votes. But the parliamentary election in June 2015 upset Erdogan’s plans for changing the law to enhance the powers of the presidency. His Justice and Development Party (AKP, Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi) lost its majority for the first time since 2002, winning only 258 out of the total of 550 seats. Subsequently, the AKP also found to its chagrin that other parties were not keen to form a coalition government with it. There was one more reason for Erdogan to be upset with the parliamentary election result. HDP (Halkarin Demokratik Partisi, People’s Democratic Party), which advocates reconciliation with Kurds and supports their aspirations for equal treatment, won 80 seats. Till now afraid of falling below the qualifying threshold of 10 per cent of the popular vote, the party had put up only independents. But this time it gained 13 per cent of the popular vote.

    With the AKP finding itself in a difficult situation, Erdogan concluded that it was necessary to change the country’s political situation. He wanted to create a situation where other parties might feel compelled to join an AKP-led coalition in view of the perceived threat to national security from IS and PKK. If f that does not work out, fresh elections can be called, thus making it possible for the AKP to win a proper majority. As of now, AKP’s efforts to form a coalition have not succeeded and Turkey might have fresh elections. Erdogan's hope of winning a majority for his party might or might not be realized.

    Immediately after the Suruc attack, tension mounted between the government and PKK, leading to violent incidents. On July 24 Turkey started bombing not only IS but also PKK targets in Iraq. In fact, there have been more strikes on PKK than on IS. Turkey has proposed, and the US appears to have agreed to, the establishment of a ‘safe zone’ about 60 km long and 40 km wide in Syria near the border with Turkey. This has been a Turkish proposal for a long time. Turkey has said that it could transfer the 1.7 million Syrian refugees in its territory to this zone. The proposed zone is now controlled mainly by the IS and the YPG (Yekineyen Parastina Gel, People’s Protection Force) – an affiliate of PKK. Turkey is worried that an independent or autonomous Kurdistan in Syria will embolden the Kurds in Turkey and that eventually an autonomous or independent Kurdistan would be formed within its territory as well. The ‘safe zone’ idea is a work in progress and we cannot say what shape it might assume or even whether it will materialise. Incidentally, Jordan with 625,000 refugees from Syria, has been signalling that it might establish a similar zone in the south along the Syrian border. The only difference is that Jordan might do so in consultation with President Assad.

    This brings us to the question of Assad’s diminishing hold on Syria. According to some reasonably reliable estimates, he holds only one-sixth of Syria. For months, he has been losing territory and facing manpower shortages. In a televised interview on July 26, Assad admitted that it might be necessary to pull out from some territories that are difficult to hold and concentrate available military power to tightly hold the Damascus-Homs-Hama-Latakia coastal belt. As of now, IS holds half of Syrian territory, though much of it is desert. The rest is held by the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra, the Kurds, the ‘moderates’ fighting Assad, and others. In short, Syria no longer exists; it is already dismembered into a number of fiefdoms.

    How long will the IS last? On September 10, 2014, President Obama said “We Will Degrade and Ultimately Destroy ISIL”. As a matter of fact, IS has been hardly ‘degraded’ and the bombings carried out by the US and its allies for nearly a year have not seriously crippled it. General Robert Neller, head of operations against IS, has told the Senate Armed Forces Committee that there is a “stalemate’ in the war between US and IS. US plans for training 5,000 Syrians to fight against Assad, announced a year ago, have failed miserably. So far only 60 Syrians are being trained.

    Turkey’s new policy will make it difficult for IS to get new recruits, but it claims to now have 20,000 fighters from 100 countries. There might be a degree of exaggeration for propaganda purposes in the claim. But the fact remains that IS has attracted thousands of young people from all over the world already, and with the closure of the Turkish border those who want to leave might find it difficult or impossible to do so. IS treats women mainly as sexual objects and its strict imposition of the Sharia will alienate many, if such alienation has not already taken place. But IS leaders are dedicated to their cause and are prepared to die for it. There is no possibility of sending a sufficiently large ground troop contingent as of now and air action can only inflict damage but not bring down the regime. Meanwhile, IS has started acting like a state by issuing fishing licenses and identity cards. As of now, it is not possible to determine the life-expectancy of IS.

    For its part, a virtually dismembered Syria might see a cease-fire agreed to by the exhausted, if the external powers pumping in money, weapons, and fighters come to the conclusion that there is a real stalemate. In any case, sooner or later, sooner rather than later, the external donors fuelling the conflict – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Russia and US, to mention only the more prominent – will have to sit down and talk with or without the UN as a facilitator.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India