Turkey Using Islamic State as Excuse to Fight the Kurds

Turkey and the US have reportedly agreed to establish a “safe-zone” along the Turkey-Syria border in exchange for US use of the Turkish Incirlik Air Base, located 60 miles northwest of Syria. Under the terms of the agreement, the Islamic State (IS) will be pushed out of a 68-mile-long area along the border. With the use of Incirlik, overflight of Syrian territory will bring US aircraft closer to the forces of the Assad regime.

US use of Incirlik will extend the reach of its airstrikes in the direction of Aleppo, the largest city in Syria. Fighting in Aleppo has mostly been between the Syrian government and Syrian rebels, and the US has been reluctant to strike forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad on behalf of the rebels. US officials do not intend to formally recognize the safe zone, which Turkey wants to establish as protected area for Syrian rebels and refugees.

Turkey has fought with the US over the terms of this agreement since last year due to disagreements over the creation of the safe zone where Syrian rebel fighters would theoretically be trained and based. The zone was a major source of contention, because Turkey insisted that Syrian rebels fighting Assad be based there. Turkey wants the US to focus less on battling IS and more on helping those fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In turn, the US has expressed concern over the groups that Turkey supports. Turkey backs a variety of Syrian Islamist militias. It has been openly accused of providing arms and support to Al Qaeda and permitting Islamic state fighters to travel back and forth across the Turkish border for medical treatment.

The problems with the establishment of the safe zone extend beyond the dangers associated with arming Al Qaeda-linked terrorist organizations. Though Turkey is claiming that the zone will help in the fight against IS, it is making no secret of the fact that its creation will bring Turkish forces into an area that has been predominately controlled by the Kurds. Turkey has been fighting the Kurds for decades. The peace process has been shaky at best, and the situation is devolving into all-out violence that has been spurred on by the fighting with IS.

On July 25, Turkey launched airstrikes against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) locations in Iraq. The airstrikes came in retaliation for PKK attacks last week, which came after IS bombed a gathering of Kurds and their supporters in Suruc, Turkey. The PKK blames Turkey for the Suruc bombing, saying that Turkey has previously allowed IS to attack Kurdish positions and to operate freely along the Turkey-Syria border.

Turkey has started launching airstrikes against IS in Syria, but the Turkish government has been treating its strikes against the Kurds as a part of the same operation. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced that “we have given instruction for a third series of strikes in Syria and Iraq. Air and ground operations are under way. No one should doubt our determination… We will not allow Turkey to be turned into a lawless country.”

While Turkey is bowing under pressure from NATO to fight IS, it is using its involvement against IS as an excuse to conduct operations against the Kurds. Along with airstrikes against the two groups, it has detained at least 851 people. 28 are suspected of being linked to IS, 74 are tied to the PKK, and the connections of the remaining 749 have not been announced. The vast majority are likely linked to Kurdish groups. To make matters worse, a Paris prosecutor announced last week that the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT) orchestrated the 2013 murder of three PKK leaders in Paris.

Turkish airstrikes against the Kurds have allegedly been accompanied by ground assaults. Forces from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria claimed on July 27 that Turkish tanks shelled them near Kobane, located in northern Syria near the Turkish border. Turkey has denied the reports.

However, the YPG has recently captured large amounts of territory in northern Syria from IS, and Turkey does not want to see the formation of an autonomous Kurdish state right across the Syrian border from its southwest region, where much of its own Kurdish population resides. Therefore, although the YPG has proven very successful in the fight against IS, Turkey does not want an effective Kurdish fighting force to exist along its border.

Turkey’s fight against IS is a pretext for attacking the Kurds, who are listed along with IS as a danger to the country’s security. The government has promised to continue attacking the Kurds, and Prime Minister Davutoglu said, “We will continue our fight… until we obtain a certain result.”

Davutoglu’s statement begs two questions: what does he mean by “a certain result?” and what is Turkey’s regional agenda?

The US must realize that Turkey’s political goals in the region are far different from American ones. Turkey aims to eradicate Kurdish influence while removing Syrian President Assad from power. In contrast, the US wants to defeat IS, and the two sets of objectives are mutually exclusive.

The best way to defeat IS in Syria is to help the Kurds. Turkey and the US are invested in completely different fights.