Turkey's decision to take a more active role in the Syrian conflict will be welcomed by many, including the United States. But, for fighters from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (or YPG) in the small northern Syrian town of Zur Maghar, the intervention is decidedly less welcome. Citing Kurdish sources, Hurriyet newspaper reported July 27 that Turkish tanks fired on U.S.-backed YPG elements in Zur Maghar. The Turkish Foreign Ministry was quick to deny the report, insisting that the target set for Turkish forces was limited to Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants in northern Iraq and Islamic State positions in Syria.
This raises speculation that the attack was either an accident resulting from misidentification or that Turkish forces exploited an opportunity to target YPG militants with plausible deniability. A co-chairman of YPG's political parent group — the Kurdish Democratic Union Party — told Al Hayat newspaper that the Kurdish militia might be willing to join Syrian government forces, presumably in response to the developing tension between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds.
Since entering the fray, Turkey has been active politically as well as militarily. On July 26, for the third consecutive day, Turkey carried out air strikes against Kurdish militants associated with the PKK in northern Iraq — north of Dohuk and north of Arbil. In a telling move, Ankara also invoked Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty, calling for a consultation to share its concerns over perceived threats from the Islamic State and the PKK, both of which NATO powers view as terrorist groups. Article 4 states: "The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened." No formal request for NATO forces has yet been made, but NATO representatives will be meeting Tuesday in response to the Turkish request.
At the heart of the developing situation are the Kurds. The existence of a large, geographically contiguous non-state entity spanning from Turkey to Iraq is a further complication to an already complex region. The Kurdish collective is hardly monolithic though, containing instead factions within factions. Some dialects of the Kurdish language are unintelligible to speakers of other dialects. Iraqi Kurds even fought a civil war from 1994-1997. This sense of division, however, does not apply to the PKK and YPG. Though they are separate groups, their ideological lineage harkens back to Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned founder of the PKK. As a result, YPG is unlikely to turn a blind eye to Turkish attacks on the PKK. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party co-chairman's initially puzzling statement about fighting alongside Syrian government forces should therefore not be taken lightly.
The story behind current events begins in January of this year, when Kurdish YPG rebels expelled Islamic State elements from the city of Kobani on the northern border between Syria and Turkey. YPG prevailed as a result of active U.S. military support and Turkish operational passivity. After YPG took Kobani, the United States continued supporting the Kurdish group, which was able to expand its territory. The group recently took Tal Abyad and is helping in the push toward the Islamic State capital of Raqqa. YPG has constructed a narrative, particularly in the Western media, of being the region's most effective fighting force against the Islamic State menace.
Turkey frowned upon U.S. support of YPG because of the organization's ties to the PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish government with various degrees of hostility since the 1970s. Ankara is candid in its unwillingness to accept the creation of a Kurdish state on its southern border — an issue that has been around since at least 1920 and the Treaty of Sevres. Regional chaos, U.S. support for YPG, and Kurdish ambition appear now to be creating the conditions for just such a reality.
Fast-forward to June 7, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party performed badly in parliamentary elections — badly enough to prevent the party from holding a significant majority, one necessary to pass reforms that would make the presidency in Turkey a far more consequential position. Instead, the People's Democratic Party, a left-wing, pro-Kurdish party, and the Nationalist Movement Party performed better than expected. No coalition government has been formed yet — a result of both the Justice and Development Party's stalling tactics and the political opposition's general unwillingness to be thrust into positions of power.
Through June and July, Turkey's actions began to demonstrably change. By the end of June, unverified reports in the Turkish media suggested that Turkey was considering military intervention in Syria. By July 3, reports had surfaced that Turkey had deployed reinforcements on the border with Syria. Then, on July 10, Turkey began a series of internal crackdowns. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Monday that so far, more than 1,050 people had been detained. The detainees included not only Islamic State affiliates but also people with connections to the PKK and the ultra-leftist Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front. The Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front has its own links to the Kurdish issue and conducted joint attacks with the PKK in the past.
The crackdown came after renewed PKK hostilities against Turkey; on June 29-30, PKK militants attacked the Hakkari Daglica military base, and on July 12, they threatened to attack dam construction projects in southeastern Turkey. Meanwhile, U.S. Special Presidential Representative Gen. John Allen traveled to Ankara for meetings with Turkish military officials on July 7. It looked as if Turkey was finally willing to work with the United States in taking a more active role in the fight against the Islamic State.
A Sense of Urgency
From this point, events escalated quickly. The Islamic State responded to the interdiction of its supply lines and the arrests of its supporters with a deadly suicide bombing on July 20 that killed 32 and injured more than 100 people in Suruc, just 10 kilometers (6 miles) across the border from Kobani. Furious at what they saw as Turkish complicity, on July 22, PKK militants killed two Turkish police officers, accusing them of collaborating with the Islamic State. The next day, reports surfaced that the Turks and Americans had agreed to a deal that would allow the U.S. military use of Incirlik air base for operations against the Islamic State. On July 24, Turkey conducted its first air strikes against the Islamic State across the border in Syria, but it did not stop there. F-16 fighters scrambled from Diyarbakir air base hit PKK targets in northern Iraq and continued attacks against identified PKK positions for two more days. On July 25, PKK militants responded by attacking a Turkish military convoy in southeastern Turkey with a car bomb, killing two Turkish soldiers. And late July 27, attackers killed Garrison Commander Arslan Kulaksiz in Malazgirt district of Mus province.
Turkey, for both domestic and strategic reasons, is no longer just passively supporting its rebel proxies in Syria with the ultimate goal of deposing President Bashar al Assad once and for all. Ankara has finally realized that it must play an active role to achieve the outcomes it desires. Domestically, the Justice and Development Party — and Erdogan in particular — have an interest in holding new elections rather than cobbling together a weak coalition. Stoking the flames of conflict with the Islamic State and PKK could take votes away from the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party. It could also intensify the Nationalist Movement Party's already strong nationalist leanings; the resulting fervor could result in previous Nationalist Movement Party voters running straight into the waiting arms of the ruling party. Combine this with rumors that Erdogan's Party intends to revise its bylaws to allow popular politicians like Abdullah Gul and Ali Babacan — in addition to more than 60 others currently disqualified by party rules — to run for office, and the domestic reasoning for Erdogan becomes clear. Conflict, combined with new elections, will result in electoral triumph and political power for the Justice and Development Party.
Strategically, Turkey has no interest in an independent Kurdish state appearing on its border with Syria, which would set the stage for Kurds with similar aspirations in Turkey and beyond. Ankara may also have decided that the potential Islamic State threat to Turkey, and the success of its supported rebel groups in Syria, was no longer tolerable. Furthermore, the deal with the United States over the use of Incirlik air base is not coincidental. The U.S.-Iran deal has changed the game in the Middle East, and it is important for Turkey to demonstrate to the United States that it will need to depend on Ankara in the future. On the domestic and strategic levels, Turkey's interests have finally brought Ankara into the fight.
The problem is that "the fight" from Turkey's perspective may not be the same as it is from Washington's. The United States made a deal with Ankara to fight the Islamic State. Whether Washington agreed to turn a blind eye toward attacks on the PKK in return for Turkish cooperation at Incirlik (and in the fight against the Islamic State in general) is a topic for speculation. It might be that Washington simply did not realize that Ankara would use the Islamic State threat to attack its Kurdish problem.
But the fact remains that whether the United States will be able to back Turkey and its attacks against the PKK while maintaining a strong fighting relationship with the YPG is an open question. For its part, the United States still considers the PKK a terrorist group. Indeed, U.S. Deputy Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk condemned recent PKK militant activity in response to the weekend's air strikes. But the United States has thus far provided critical support to the PKK-allied YPG and has depended on YPG abilities to score important victories against the Islamic State in Syria.
In the past, the Turks have lumped PKK and YPG Kurds into one category, but now they are imposing an artificial differentiation; Turkey will bomb PKK Kurds in northern Iraq, but not Kurds in Syria, at least not officially, and not yet. Thus far, as a result of its need for local partners on the ground to fight the Islamic State, the United States seems to be making a similar distinction, proffering military support to YPG while defending Turkey's right to defend itself against the PKK.
Have U.S. and Turkish interests converged to the extent that they can partner to achieve their shared goals of defeating the Islamic State and engineering al Assad's exit from the political scene? Will Erdogan's high-stakes domestic political gamble work in his favor? Will a continued outright assault on the PKK cement ties between YPG and the PKK, resulting in at least some Kurdish factions uniting in pursuit of an autonomous Kurdish statelet in Kurdish areas of northern Syria? Will the Turks create the long-rumored buffer zone to block YPG, cripple the Islamic State and allow Syrian rebels to march on al Assad's strongholds? These are the questions that Monday's events raise, and if the pace of activity is any indication, their answers will not be long in coming.