by Kathleen Taylor
After resisting for several years, Turkey reluctantly joined the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in July 2015, following new recognition in Ankara of the threat ISIS’s presence along the border poses to Turkish security. However, Turkey’s fear of Kurdish nationalism and the growing presence of Kurdish parties in the Turkish parliament has resulted in stronger air strikes against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)—up until now an ally in the battle against ISIS—instead of against ISIS. As ISIS poses the largest threat to Turkey’s security, the Turkish government must shift its focus from air strikes against Kurdish targets and begin targeting ISIS strongholds.
Throughout the United States’ year-long campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or the Islamic State), the U.S. government has sought to increase Turkey’s role in the conflict, believing the Turkish Republic is key to destroying the terrorist group. Turkey has been reluctant to become involved due to constant disagreement between Turkey and the United States over who should be the main target: Turkey contends that Syria, and its president Bashar al Assad, is most dangerous, whereas the United States maintains that ISIS poses the primary threat. In July, Turkey finally joined the U.S.-led coalition carrying out air strikes against ISIS in Syria, allowing the United States to launch military strikes from Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. In late July, Turkey deepened its involvement with the U.S.-led coalition by staging its own airstrikes against ISIS. Unfortunately, Turkish air strikes also targeted Kurdish Worker Party (PKK) strongholds and are now targeting Kurdish insurgents more than ISIS. It has become clear that Turkey’s incentive for further participation in the U.S.-led fight does not center on defeating ISIS or restoring regional stability; rather, its main objective is nationalist and aimed at punishing the PKK.
Turkey’s air strikes against the PKK are a direct consequence of the Turkish government’s perception of Kurdish nationalism as a threat to its sovereignty. Kurds across the Middle East dream of an independent Kurdish state, a notion Ankara vehemently opposes. Within Turkey, the PKK has long fought for more autonomy. Turkey, however, vowed never to allow the creation of an independent Kurdish state and views the political party as a terrorist group. Disputes between the two sides have lasted over 35 years, and are known for their violence. After nearly four years of peace talks to end this conflict, neither the Turkish government nor Kurdish leaders appear willing to continue negotiations. Oddly, given his overt dislike for the PKK and Kurdish nationalism, the Turkish government under President Erdogan (at the time as prime minster) had gone further than any previous government in seeking peace with the Kurds in Turkey. However, earlier this summer, Mr. Erdogan announced that the peace process is over, and senior PKK commanders reinforced this by promising to retaliate against Turkish forces.
Yet outside of these negotiations, some Kurdish voices have found their way into the political conversation through winning a landmark 13 percent of the vote in this year’s parliamentary elections, the same election that lost Mr. Erdogan’s party the parliamentary majority. The electoral success of the Kurdish parties clearly angered President Erdogan and disrupted his plan to create a U.S.-styled presidential system in which he would have more power; the results also reinforced Turkish paranoia about the rising power of the Kurdish community.
This paranoia explains Turkey’s initial reluctance to get involved with the fight against ISIS. As the Kurdish community transcends borders, Turkey is becoming increasingly concerned about the advancement of Kurds in Syria, and the support the United States gives to the Kurdish military groups. The Syrian Kurds are led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an off-shoot of the PKK, and its military arm—the People’s Protection Units—proved to be the United States’ most effective ally in fighting the Islamic State in Syria. Although the United States and Turkey both consider the PKK a terrorist group, only Turkey classifies the PYD as terrorists. As a result, the PYD receives significant U.S. assistance in its fight for greater independence, in the form of air strikes, in return for providing ground support in the fight against ISIS. Turkey suspects that the success of Syrian Kurds in reasserting autonomy could incite a resurgence of its own Kurdish population’s nationalistic inclinations. Consequently, it seems the Turkish government has made “combatting the Kurds their priority.” Turkey perceives Kurdish nationalism, not the rise of Islamic State, to be its most imminent security threat—and its airstrikes against the Kurds are the indisputable proof of this.
Beyond a response to the perceived PKK threat, however, Mr. Erdogan’s strategy of using the air strikes against ISIS as a smokescreen for attacks on Kurdish targets is also a political effort to “win back votes of nationalists who oppose Kurdish autonomy.” President Erdogan seeks to punish Turkey’s Kurdish minority for stymying his domestic political ambitions. Yet his domestic preoccupation leaves Turkey vulnerable: ISIS is a more existential threat than the Kurdish groups, having conquered large swaths of Iraq and Syria, with the end goal of creating an Islamic caliphate that would eventually encompass Turkey as well. However, Mr. Erdogan continues to focus more on Kurdish nationalism even as ISIS closes in on Turkey’s borders.
Turkey’s targeting of the Kurds will have serious consequences for both Turkey and the larger Middle East. Most immediately, such actions complicate the fight against ISIS and ultimately make it more difficult for the U.S.-led coalition to defeat the terrorist group. Turkey must realize that while Kurdish nationalism is a challenge to the Turkish government, the Islamic State poses a challenge to the entire country and all of its people. Turkey must shift its focus from air strikes against Kurdish targets toward targeting ISIS strongholds in a more efficient and aggressive manner.
Kathleen Taylor is a contributing editor for Charged Affairs with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She is based in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.