Turkey's Dilemma in Syria

Briefing Note

Turkey's Dilemma in Syria

11 Oct 2015

The bombing in Ankara on 10 October, which killed 102 people, shows the threat Turkey faces as it seeks to manage the perceived threats of the Kurds, Assad and ISIS on its southern border.

The 10 October bombing in Ankara demonstrates the growing vulnerability of Turkey to the spillover effects of the Syrian civil war. Though no-one has claimed responsibility, the bombing, which targeted a peace rally organised by the pro-Kurdish HDP party, bears many of the hallmarks of an ISIS attack that struck another Kurdish gathering in Suruc in July. That attack prompted the long-running insurgency of the Kurdish PKK to flare into renewed violence.

The suicide bomb attack in the Turkish city of Suruc near the Syrian border on 20 July 2015 killed 32 people and left many more injured. The city was being used to house hundreds of young people from the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations (SGDF) who were helping on projects to rebuild the nearby Syrian town of Kobane after it was regained from ISIS in bitter fighting. 

Suruc has a predominantly Kurdish population and activists from the city played a major role during the siege of Kobane, sending food and medical aid to Syrian Kurdish People's Defence Force (YPG) fighters. The YPG inflicted heavy losses on ISIS in Kobane earlier this year and also captured the important Tal Abyad border-crossing from the group. Many Kurds believe that ISIS has been looking to target Kurds in Turkey for some time in revenge for their support of Kurdish fighters in Syria. The PKK, or Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has led a long and violent uprising against the Turkish state, has accused Turkey's governing AK party of responsibility for the Suruc attack in turning a blind eye to jihadi militants in the country.

The government has pursued a policy of supporting groups seeking to topple Assad.

Authorities have been accused of overlooking the influx of foreign fighters who have joined the conflict in Syria via Turkey. The government has pursued a policy of supporting groups seeking to topple Assad. However, the policy has resulted in the strengthening of ISIS as well as other jihadi groups. The crossings between Syria and Turkey are extremely porous and have been a hotbed for corruption and smuggling networks as well as providing a route of escape for the 1.8 million Syrian refugees of whom Turkey now host. Critics point to the failure of the Turkish authorities to adequately secure their borders as an indication that Turkey is not taking ISIS seriously. But the country's openness to refugees from Syria has made it extremely hard to filter out militants travelling in either direction.

Since a Turkish fighter jet was shot down by Syrian forces along the border in March 2014, the Turkish military has been on a heightened sense of alert. Turkey faces the extremely challenging predicament of having to protect its borders and citizens from three different parties engaged in fighting next door. The Assad regime, ISIS, and Kurdish fighters are all felt to pose a threat to the country, and yet some level of peace on the border is unlikely unless Turkey cooperates with at least one of them.

While Turkey and other regional Sunni powers would welcome ISIS' defeat in Iraq and Syria, it is unlikely be happy with this defeat coming at the hands of Kurdish groups or Shia militias with Iranian support. From 2012, a Sunni axis of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey set the removal of Assad regime as one of its foremost objectives, hoping that this would diminish the role of Iran in the region. To achieve this objective, members of the axis have been openly helping Sunni organisations including Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and facilitating the flow of fighters to the conflict. The result has been the proliferation of militias which may share the objective of removing Assad and opposing Iranian (or Shia) influence, but are not otherwise Turkey's allies.

ISIS has previously targeted Turkish citizens outside of the country, taking truck drivers and consulate workers hostage in Mosul in June 2014. The group also threatened Turkey with the destruction of the tomb of Suleiman Shah, which is Turkish sovereign territory though located in Syria, if Turkey did not withdraw its troops guarding the tomb. This prompted swift action from Turkey's military forces in a sensitive and highly organised operation in order to secure and relocate the tomb. There have also been recent skirmishes between ISIS and Turkish forces.

The Assad regime, ISIS, and Kurdish fighters are all felt to pose a threat to Turkey.

Turkish security forces have recently stepped up their efforts to counter the domestic threat of ISIS. In March 2015, intelligence officials in Turkey said that up to 3,000 ISIS-linked jihadis were looking to cross into its territory from Syria aiming to attack diplomatic targets belonging to the members of the coalition against the group. In July 2015 Turkish police blocked access to a number of ISIS-affiliated websites that were seen as driving the group's recruitment in Turkey and conducted dawn raids leading to the capture of 21 suspected ISIS militants and a cache of weapons. Turkish border security also stopped 500 people from entering the country from Syria, a sign of change to the country's often criticised, previous policy of largely open borders to refugees. Nevertheless, the previous policy leaves the real possibility that ISIS-linked fighters may have already established cells in Turkey from which to launch attacks on Turkish soil.

Nevertheless Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that the Kurdish advances on ISIS in Syria pose a threat to Turkey's own security. The YPG militia, which has taken control of large areas of northern Syria, has close ties to the separatist PKK, which has been designated a terrorist organisation around the world, including in the US. The positive global image of Kurdish militias in the fight against ISIS has particularly frustrated Turkey's government. For much of ISIS' four-month assault on the Syrian border town of Kobane from September 2014, Ankara refused to help the YPG in its efforts to retake the town, eventually allowing it only under international pressure. Erdogan even publicly compared the PKK to ISIS, revealing the competing pressures on Turkish government policy.

The Suruc attack and the Ankara bombing brings these conflicting pressures together. It represents ISIS launching attacks on Turkish soil against Kurdish targets supportive of the Kurdish fight in Syria, itself opposed by the Turkish authorities. The consequence has been the commencement of Turkish airstrikes on the group in Syria, despite previous reluctance to engage in the US-led coalition's campaign. Turkey has also targeted positions held by the Kurdish PKK which is fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq; this has been accompanied by a renewal of the PKK's long-running separatist insurgency. Turkey claims to make no distinction between ISIS and the PKK as they are both designated terrorist groups. Some of Turkey's detractors have accused the government of using the excuse of targeting ISIS as a guise for going after Kurdish fighters on the Syria-Turkey border region.

This article was originally published on 21 July 2015. It was updated on 11 October 2015.


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