Unmasking Turkey’s ISIL strategy

Understanding Turkey’s wider strategic concerns is the key to saving Kobane.

The Turkish-Syria border is a symbol of the endurance of the region's traditional borders, writes Denselow [AFP]

Picture the scene; amidst reports of massacres and atrocities tens of thousands of Kurds surge towards the border with Turkey only to be met by closed crossings. With the prospect of an immanent humanitarian catastrophe the international community is faced with a choice – to respect the norms of sovereignty and do nothing, or to take matters in a radical and different direction. Yet these events aren’t from 2014 but in fact 1991 and it was Saddam Hussein’s army not ISIL’s militiamen who were the enemy, but understanding the events of this past helps to explain Turkey’s policy of today.

In 1991, the radical direction the international community took in Iraq was in the form of a no-fly zone that would eventually lead to the creation of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), one of the most significant redrawing of the Middle East’s boundaries since colonial times. Today, the ISIL blitzkrieg again puts the future of the region’s borders in question. Globalised, transnational terrorism is partly a reaction to the failure of borders of old and ISIL has revelled in its very physical destruction of parts of the Syria-Iraq border as part of its claim to a wider neo-caliphate.

The Turkish-Syria border remains a symbol of the endurance of the region’s traditional borders. The line marked by fences, minefields and now a deployed Turkish army quite literally separates safety from danger and order from chaos. Along this border, just inside the Syrian side, lies the small town of Kobane where the eyes of the world are focused.

Kurds warn Turkey over inaction in Kobane

US Secretary of State John Kerry has played down the strategic importance of the town placing the priority around protecting against the fall of Baghdad. However it is the very visibility of the battle for Kobane in the global media – covering events from a safe distance – that makes it so important for all the stakeholders involved in this conflict.

As in 1991, the Turkish closure of their borders today has already moved discussions to no-fly zones and potential “buffer zones” along the border with Syria. When Lakhdar Brahimi was UN envoy to Syria, he warned that the conflict would spill over its borders. ISIL are the most dangerous manifestation of this spill over and US President Barack Obama’s new strategy is an attempt to reverse this trend.

Yet hopes that the US entering the fray would mark the turning of the tide are as of yet unfounded. Kobane’s fate in the short term appears the litmus test of how the anti-ISIL strategy is going. Understandably, this has led to a huge amount of focus on Turkey’s inaction. Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan responded to growing criticism saying “it’s a great unfairness to claim that Turkey is doing nothing”. As well as hosting more than a million Syrian refugees, many of whom the UN warned recently they may not be able to feed, Ankara has also granted US use of its airspace and bases, and the Turkish Grand National Assembly has voted to authorise the use of force in Syria.

Turkey, in charge of Nato’s second largest army, could clearly be more proactive but won’t do so unless they feel they have guarantees about how to fight ISIL without backing the “People’s Protection Units” (YPG), who are the main Kurdish force in Syria and are linked to the “Kurdistan Workers’ Party” (PKK).

The Turkish-PKK conflict has been a longstanding domestic problem going back over three decades with over 40,000 lives lost. This history (and the fact that there are some 14 million Turkish Kurds) hasn’t simply gone away with the outbreak of the ISIL crisis. It doesn’t matter how many times Kerry phones Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu unless the US understands how Turkey’s domestic considerations are driving Ankara’s foreign policy choices.

Turkey’s foreign minister has said that it cannot be expected to lead a ground operation against ISIL in Syria on its own. Whilst Ankara talks of the need for Regime change in Syria this is likely a start of negotiations that could end up with Turkey getting an agreement for a de facto or more formal a buffer zone inside Syrian territory. This, combined with the reinforcement of Turkey’s actual border with Syria, could act as a “forward border” that keeps the connections between the Kurds of Syria and the Kurds of Turkey at an arms length.  

Indeed the positive relationship between the Iraqi KRG and Turkey demonstrates how much more comfortable Ankara is about dealing with the “Kurdish question” outside of its own borders rather than inside and Kerry has admitted a buffer is “worth looking at very, very closely”.

Ensuring that Turkey’s wider strategic concerns are understood is critical to winning the more immediate action that is required to save Kobane and it may see the borders of the region change again but with the addition of new ones rather than stripping away those of old.

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

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