Turkey has been pursuing air campaigns on two fronts since late July: One targeting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq and another against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group in the north of Syria.
The government says the air strikes on ISIL are in retaliation for a suicide attack that killed 33 people in a Turkish town close to the Syrian border. Ankara blames the armed group for the attack.
Turkey’s decision to militarily engage ISIL came after its allies, particularly the United States, tried to persuade Ankara to do so for months. Turkey’s previous stance was reportedly a result of broader disagreements over how to engage the Syrian crisis in general.
The PKK and the Turkish state were engaged in a war for almost 30 years until a 2013 ceasefire was declared as the two sides were engaged in peace talks. The ceasefire largely held until the recent developments and the talks practically collapsed. The US and the EU considers the group a “terrorist” organisation.
The Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), a PKK-linked group, said in mid-July that attacks in the country would be stepped up after what it claimed were ceasefire violations by the Turkish military.
Violence has further escalated in Turkey after the army began its air campaign. The number of Turkish security forces killed by the PKK since the ceasefire was broken, is at least 19 as of August 4 – the worst wave of violence in years.
The Turkish air campaigns commenced right after Ankara gave the green light for the US-led coalition against ISIL to use its airbases.
“It is not possible for us to continue the peace process with those who threaten our national unity and brotherhood,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, after the beginning of Turkish air strikes.
In the beginning of June, the Turkish political scene saw the unprecedented success of the left-wing pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party getting 13 percent of the votes in parliamentary elections, comfortably passing Turkey’s unusually high 10 percent electoral threshold.
Al Jazeera asked Talip Kucukcan, an MP of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party and a professor who has widely worked in the field of foreign policy, about the latest shifts in Turkey’s foreign policy.
Al Jazeera: Why did Ankara wait this long to take military action against ISIL despite its allies’ demands?
Talip Kucukcan: Ankara and its allies have had some differences on a number of issues regarding the uprising in Syria and how to address rising security risks in the region stemming from demographic changes, refugee influx and armed groups. What lies at the roots of these differences are at least twofold.
Let us remember that Turkey was the first country to label and recognise ISIL as a terrorist organisation.
First, Turkey has a long border with Iraq and Syria and its security needs – and thus priorities – are shaped by developments in its immediate borderlands. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Turkey has supported all international peace initiatives and proposed to take preventive measures such as the establishment of humanitarian corridors and safe zones to which neither the international community nor Turkey’s allies responded positively.
As a consensus could not be reached on how to achieve a regional order that would prevent the rise of radical groups and terrorist organisations – such as ISIL – Turkey was left alone to implement its own security measures to protect its own borders and national interests.
Second, Turkey openly supported the idea of democratic transition in Syria and therefore cooperated with its allies to achieve this objective by supporting moderate groups. Yet, many Western governments retreated from their initial positions and remained indifferent when Turkey had to deal with almost two million refugees.
Despite Turkey’s efforts to draw attention to the rising threat by ISIL and similar groups, Turkey’s allies and Western governments seemed to have turned a blind eye until ISIL started to widen its control in Iraq and Syria. European governments, in particular, were very ineffective in preventing their citizens of Muslim origin to join this terrorist organisation.
Let us remember that Turkey was the first country to recognise and label ISIL as a terrorist organisation. When Turkey’s consulate in Mosul was under siege and its staff was taken hostage by ISIL, Turkey had to deploy diplomatic tactics to save its own citizens.
It is therefore a false claim that Turkey joined the fight against ISIL late.
Al Jazeera: Is it a coincidence that Turkey started air strikes against ISIL and PKK simultaneously? Is there a link between the two campaigns?
Kucukcan: For Turkey, both PKK and ISIL are terrorist organisations which pose a threat to Turkey’s security and the regional order. Both have targeted Turkish civilians and soldiers. Ankara has conducted security and military operations against the PKK both in Turkey and Iraq in previous years.
There had been no operation against the PKK since 2013 because of the peace process. When Turkey started political reforms to address the Kurdish issue, it did so by changing a paradigm and decided to tackle this long-running question by establishing a balance between security and democracy.
During this peace process, the Turkish state announced that a final solution should be sought via politics and thus the PKK must disarm. The state even started talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, and the political wings of the organisation. The HDP joined the peace initiative by mediating between Ocalan and the government.
However, leaderships of the PKK and affiliated KCK sent conflicting messages. Despite their promise to withdraw all their armed militants beyond the borders of Turkey in 2013, they have never done so, resulting in a loss of confidence.
The state did not respond with force to PKK attacks for a long time because of the peace process.
As the security threat became more imminent from these two organisations, Turkey had no choice but to accelerate its fight against terrorism. All countries would take a similar position under the same conditions.
Al Jazeera: The air campaign against the PKK came right after Turkey agreed to allow the US-led coalition against ISIL to use its bases. Did Ankara and Washington exchange views on the issue?
Kucukcan: Turkey and the US are close allies and have been trying to reconcile differences in their approach to Middle Eastern issues in general and Iraqi and Syrian questions in particular. It seems that both countries have come to the conclusion that without strong cooperation and more coordinated efforts, the fight against terrorism in the region – which is a much greater threat to Turkey than to US security concerns – is more likely to be less effective.
Operations against ISIL are a strong indication that Turkey will not tolerate any attacks on its civilians and military.
On regional and critical issues, Turkey has consulted and informed the US, shared intelligence, and supported the US in international forums. NATO is also informed about the operations in this process. The unfolding cooperation is yet another chapter in the constructive relations and strategic partnership between the two countries.
However, one must note that Turkey would have taken a strong position against the PKK and ISIL with or without US approval under the current circumstances [which are] marked by simultaneous attacks on its territory. The Turkish-US strategic partnership has gone through a number of tests and it seems that fighting against terrorism and terrorist organisations has further consolidated relations between the two.
Al Jazeera: What does Turkey seek to achieve through these operations? How do you think the peace process will be affected by these developments?
Kucukcan: Turkey’s objectives in the operations against the PKK and ISIL are very clear: To defend Turkey’s security and show that Turkey will not stand by when there is an immediate threat in and around Turkey.
Turkey has proven its political will and determination; long-running problems and recent crises in the region can only be resolved through political engagement, not by armed and terrorist methods against democratically elected governments. Turkey has suffered from PKK terrorism for the last 30 years that has cost almost 40,000 lives and billions of dollars.
The June 7 elections resulted in the formation of, politically, the largest and most representative parliament including the Kurds and all other political views. Turkey insists that the parliament is the site for seeking solutions, not armed methods, and the government will not allow the PKK to hijack the Kurdish issue when there are politically elected representatives. Although the HDP is not courageous enough to condemn PKK terrorism and is unwilling to call on the PKK to lay down their arms, political negotiations are the only way forward.
However, this process seems to be frozen at the moment because the PKK would like to continue to dominate the Kurdish issue by using force.
Operations against ISIL on the other hand are a strong indication that Turkey will not tolerate any attacks on its civilians and military. It is also a statement of its commitment that the border region must be cleansed of ISIL.
Al Jazeera: Ankara at various times has stated that it was not targeting the PYD, the PKK-affiliated group in Syria. How does Turkey categorise the two armed groups? How is one different than the other for Ankara?
Kucukcan: The main target of Turkey’s operations in Syria is ISIL, not the PYD at all. That does not mean that Turkey supports the PYD’s activities and plans for the future in its immediate borders. For Turkey, both are terror-related organisations and the PYD is just an extension of the PKK.
Turkey’s support for the Kurdish people in Syria was evident when Turkey opened its border to the Kurdish Peshmerga [Iraqi Kurdish forces] to enter Syria to defend Kobane [the Syrian Kurdish border town which ISIL and the PYD fought for last year].
Without that support, it would have fallen into the hands of ISIL. Recently, the PYD has been presented as an organisation that is fighting against ISIL, which serves as a facade for its terrorist nature.
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_uras