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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Enter the Ottomans: Turkey joins the fight against ISIS

After much complaining and squabbling, Turkey has decided to join in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Turkish Grand National Assembly voted its consent back in October, but only now have airstrikes come from Turkish F-16s. Ankara claims this is the start of a broader strategy rather than a one-time maneuver.

Turkey, a member of NATO, has received strong criticism from other NATO states for seemingly not doing much to combat the evil group running rampant across Iraq and Syria. There's also been considerable speculation that Turkey is turning a blind eye to ISIS militants crossing the border in hopes that the group will undermine the Assad regime in Syria.

Two recent events have turned the tide in Turkey. A suicide bombing in a town named Suruc, just across the border from the Kurdish town of Kobani left 32 dead and one hundred injured. Turkish officials have since identified who they believe carried out the bombing-an ethnic Kurd who had ties to Islamic State. This likely came as a surprise as Kurds, while many are conservative Muslims,   have fought ISIS for many months outside Turkey. Another clash on the Syrian border left a Turkish soldier dead and several others injured.

There is an essentially important third dynamic in this conflict: the Kurds. Much of Turkey's southern border looks out over an area of Syria that ethnic Kurds have defiantly carved out over the last few months. Kurds are an ethnic group that are spread out over Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, but it is Turkey where they have been fighting a long, drawn-out conflict with the designated terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, often known by its initials PKK.

As it turns out, ISIS is not the only organization being targeted by the Turkish Armed Forces in this new campaign. The Turkish Air Force has also targeted and struck PKK strongholds in Iraqi Kurdistan. This comes after rising tensions between the PKK and Turkey culminated in the end of the ceasefire between the two parties and the PKK attacking and killing Turkish police officers.

The PKK is not a fundamentalist Islamic group like ISIS, but it has sent its message of Kurdish separatism by violence just the same, and they have contributed heavily to the long and still-unresolved rift between Turks and Kurds in Turkey.

This new flare-up may have far-reaching ramifications. The People's Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey, a left-wing Kurdish interest political party that won 80 seats in June's general election, has often been smeared by other parties as an extension of the terrorist PKK, allegations it denies. Whether it is or it isn't, the PKK's resurgence means the HDP will be heavily scrutinized by the rest of the Turkish government and may even be banned in lieu of the recent violence. This is sure to drive the wedge between the Kurdish southeast and the rest of Turkey even further. And this time, left-wing Turks who voted for HDP a month ago will probably not be on board to defend the party they voted for.

Interestingly, the strikes conducted by the Turkish military in northern Iraq against the PKK were conducted in Iraqi Kurdistan. It's not clear whether Masoud Barzani, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan since 2005, allowed or authorized these airstrikes, but seeing as Iraqi Kurdistan still answers to a dysfunctional Baghdad, he may not have had any say in the matter at all. President Erdogan of Turkey and Barzani enjoy close relations, but the airstrikes may contribute to destabilization of Iraqi Kurdistan if they continue.

Turkey has been wary of the rise of Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. Iraqi Kurdistan has considerable autonomy from Baghdad and the areas that Syrian Kurds have fought for control of have broad autonomy as well. The Kurds' success around Turkey has ignited speculation that an independent Kurdistan may soon be a reality. This, coupled with the fact that Kurds are an antsy majority in Turkey's poorer southeastern region, some of whom still itch for independence, has Ankara worried.

Syrian Kurds fighting for the YPG interviewed by TIME magazine expressed skepticism when asked about Ankara's entry into the ISIS coalition. It can be argued that Turkey has been stuck between a rock and a hard place, only wanting to avoid conflict, but that conflict may be impossible to avoid at this point. Syrian Kurds as shown in the interview, however, argue that Turkey has had multiple opportunities to contribute to the fight against ISIS which it has let pass.

Turkey is a regional powerhouse. It is a comparatively wealthy and democratic country, founded on principles of secularism and civic nationalism which have kept it together and made it much stronger than the vast majority of Middle Eastern countries. It also boasts one of the biggest and most competent militaries in the region and has the capability to put ISIS on its heels.

There may have been an opportunity here for Turks and Kurds to unite in even a limited capacity, but that possibility has shrunk considerably with the recent actions of the PKK. It's a shame, considering
that if faced with a common enemy, the well-equipped Turks and the tough-as-nails Kurds had the capacity to drive a spike straight through the chest of Islamic State.

While many Turkish Kurds aren't supportive of the PKK, a crackdown on the HDP could absolutely reignite tensions between the two peoples and drive the Kurdish population to consider independence again. This is something Turkey is extremely unlikely to allow as it goes against the Turkish constitution and the Turkish military is absolutely able to crush any serious uprising. Unless the PKK quickly reconsiders and ends its recent provocations, the region will further destabilize.


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