Behind the Red Curtain Turkey’s Terror Plays On Government Playwrights
In recent months, Turkey has felt the weight of international pressure upon its dealing(s) with ISIS. Given its geostrategic location, Turkey is a popular through-road for established and would-be jihadis moving in and out of Syria, leading the west to lean heavily on Ankara in the fight against ISIS.
Turkey hasn’t exactly shunned its role in the fight against ISIS. Nearly 1000 fighters have been caught hailing from 57 countries, and a total of 600 Brits have been stopped trying to get to Syria. These arrests are a result of the growing cooperation between Turkey and the UK’s security forces. This ‘shows’ that Turkey is taking the role assigned to it by western powers more seriously.
And what a show it is. The real song and dance is happening behind not-so-closed doors. Turkey’s “terror cocktail” is both shaken and stirred. So much so, the country has even been referred to as the “new Pakistan”. ISIS is but one of the many terrorist organisations that transiently skip across Turkey’s stage. Turkish Hezbolla, al-Qaeda, Revolutionary Headquarter (DK) and the Marxist-Leninist People’s Liberation Army-Front (DHKP-C) have all had a part to play in the country’s long history of dealing with terrorist groups. Name an acronym and Turkey has likely dealt with it, but none has been quite as much of a threat to Turkey’s integrity as the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Convincing Narratives: National Sentiment and the PKK
Like the predictable antagonist, Turkey pursues the PKK in every scene. The PKK, in Turkey’s eyes, isn’t just a security threat. It’s a threat to the unity and strength of the Turkish state. The Kurdistan Workers Party has felt the full brunt of Ankara’s enforced Kemalism. Peace negotiations in summer 2015 only served to push Turks and Kurds back to their traditional mutually antagonistic position. The worst terror attack in Turkey’s history, killing over 100 people on October 10th, was framed as a PKK-led false-flag operation despite the Kurds and the HDP (People’s Democratic Party – anti-nationalist, pro-Kurdish) being key organisers of the political rally targeted by bombers. According to a poll, 38 percent of Turkish citizens regardless believe this to be true. This isn’t surprising given the country’s internal crackdown on press freedom and “havus medyası ” (pool-media). This allows Turkey to push a convincing narrative that writes Turkey’s ruling part, the AKP, as the driver of stability.
Istikrar (stability) as a slogan accurately represents the AKP’s election rhetoric. Stability and security were the dominating flashpoints of the November snap-elections, however ethnicity was at the root. The AKP has been accused of using the murder of two policemen by PKK bombers to ramp up its operations against the Kurds and win the November snap elections in the name of Turkish unity. Turkish nationalist sentiment has been on the rise since Ankara re-started operations against the PKK in the south-east. Fighting the PKK helps Turkey’s drive to weaken the HDP by tarnishing their association with the Kurdish minority.
Cooperation with the west is merely masking what’s behind the red curtain. In addition to working with UK security forces, Ankara has also allowed the US to use its Incirlik Air Force Base in southern Turkey, close to several ISIS strongholds. The “Incirlik deal” was ostensibly to help intensify the fight against ISIS. Preceding this deal, Turkey wasn’t directly involved in the US-led coalition against ISIS. Analysts say that turkey’s decision to join the fight more actively was less to do with ISIS but more as a result of the threat posed by the YPG’s rapid territorial gains within Syria, which the AKP government strongly opposes.
Using the airbase allowed for greater efficiency and reduced response times for coalition aircraft to make their moves on ISIS. In return, Turkey wanted the US to curb support of the YPG (People’s Protection Units, read ‘Syrian Kurds’) in their fight against the jihadis. Despite a sense of being tricked, Washington has shown that it’s willing to pay the price in the war against ISIS. Signing the deal not only marked the US’s aerial strikes near ISIS stronghold in Raqqa, but also the heaviest airstrikes by Turkey against the PKK after Erdoğan discontinued the peace process and the ceasefire collapsed.
Whodunit: Turkey’s Credibility
Continued support as a NATO member and “cooperating” with the coalition is allowing Turkey to continue wearing its mask and works to Ankara’s favour. This is despite ever-frequenting and open allegations that Ankara is tolerant of, if not in complicit, with ISIS. Allegations range from military collaboration to logistical and financial support. Turkey’s porous border has been at the helm of criticisms. Theories reasonably explain that throughout the Syrian civil war, Turkey’s porous border was to encourage those wanting to fight against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, but once smuggling networks were established, they’re hard to break down.
Researchers have conducted studies into the credibility of accusations against Turkey. As it stands, it’s hard not to point the finger: An ISIS commander told the Washington Post that most of their fighters came via Turkey in the beginning of the war along with equipment and supplies; Sky News obtained documents showing that the Turkish government stamped passport of foreign militants crossing into Syria to join ISIS; Jordanian intelligence insists Turkey trained ISIS militants for special operations and that the state paid for militants to be treated in Turkish hospitals; the New York Times reported on US efforts to pressure Turkey into cracking down on the purchase of oil from ISIS; and there are reports of a Turkish propaganda website recruiting would-be jihadis to ISIS from Turkey and Germany.
It’s likely that the US and the west are largely putting these allegations to one side; aiming to induce amnesia and reduce such allegations to “conspiracy theories”, due to probability that the US and others were ISIS’s midwives. This twist in the plot makes it much harder to point the finger at Turkey.
Whether or not Turkey has helped write ISIS into this now international story may remain unclear given Ankara’s fervent denial. ISIS has given Turkey the opportunity to pursue the PKK with more rigour. The spate of bombings in Turkey, most recently in January, has allowed the AKP to tarnish the PKK with the same brush as ISIS. The October attack allowed Turkey’s ruling party to use the bombings to their electoral benefit. To the AKP, it’s not a matter of whodunit, stating “these attacks are not a matter of this or that organisation” but the problems Turkey faces regarding terror. It is indeed a problem turkey needs to face up to and clamp down on, and the PKK, likened to ISIS in AKP bombast, are a part of that problem. However last year, in Turkey’s round-up of individuals identified as terrorist suspects 137 of those arrested were linked to ISIS and 847 were tied to the PKK. The disproportionality of this is striking when viewed in the context of the devastating Suruç, Ankara and Istanbul bombings perpetrated by ISIS.
The US can’t stop it from happening – it doesn’t have a leg to stand on given international recognition of the PKK as a terrorist group. Washington has been careful not to offend its allies in Ankara and supports its campaign against the PKK despite the YPG having been formidable allies to the US since 2014 as the only fighters on the ground in theatre. The YPG have relayed intelligence and coordinated ISIS airstrike targets to American operations centres. This has given them a greater international profile, with reports of female-only units making popular news items. Worse still for the Turks, it has also given them confidence as the world sees the Kurds as protagonists in this tale.
The international audience watches this power-play in the Middle East and sporadically condemns Turkey’s actions against the Kurds. The YPGs (which are seemingly lumped together as one “Kurdish” character) territorial gains near the Turkish border have definitely shaken things up. The YPG isn’t recognised by the US and allies as a terrorist organisation, however in Turkey’s worldview the Syrian sister of the PKK is just as dangerous and as much of an enemy, potentially more so as it carves out a proto-state close to Turkey’s border.
The PKK have been fighting for Kurdish minority rights, self-determination, and even independence since 1984. The Kurds are divided by modern borders and are a sizeable minority within Turkey, as well as Syria, Iran and Iraq. They have been seen as agitators in these countries; however in what could be called dramatic irony, the Turks share good relations with the Kurdish Regional Government and Peshmerga forces in Northern Iraq, and the KRG and PKK have often shared disputes with one another.
Internally, Turkey has equated all Kurds with terrorists. This has led to a number of periodic clashes since the collapse of peace talks last July alongside mounting civilian deaths and human rights violations. The government has been accused of refusing to differentiate between armed PKK and civilian Kurds. The Turkish Human Rights Foundation has said that 198 civilians have died in areas under curfew since August.
The Plot Thickens: Useful Enemies, Usual Suspects
As though the plot wasn’t complex enough Turkey is also hunting leftist DHKP-C militants, blamed for several shootings and grenade attacks. The DHKP-C claimed one of its militants fired at the US consulate in Istanbul on August 10. According to an IHS analyst, the group had close unofficial ties with the Syrian regime in Damascus.
Like its Gulf allies, Turkey wants the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This is one of the reasons that Ankara backed rebels fighting the Damascus regime (just not the Kurdish factions). The AKPs obsession with Assad has no real rational basis, but partly stems from Assad’s rejection of the AKP as a “big brother”, Turkey’s previous policies toward the Middle East and its competition for regional power with Iran. The US and allies have recently become more sympathetic toward Assad as the lesser of two evils. However, this hasn’t changed Turkey’s stance. Recent murmurings that Syria’s Kurds are contemplating an Aleppo Alliance with Assad and Russia didn’t serve to make Ankara any more sympathetic to their cause.
US policymakers can’t and won’t completely drop the PYD for Turkish support. However, an unintended consequence of Washington’s policy to push Turkey not to target the PYD could be fissures between the PYD and PKK, which would be favourable for Turkey.
However, the once “useful enemy” against the PKK and Assad may be no more. Some commentators believe Turkey was under the impression that if it left ISIS alone they’d return the sentiment. The recent bombings have shown that ISIS is targeting Turkey however. The country may even get more proactive in its security and military approach to ISIS following multiple bombings in Ankara, and relations with the US have strengthened in the aftermath (with the US sharing tech) as Turkey has come to realise these attacks aren’t just happenstance. They are attacks that also raise concerns that ISIS is going at Turkey hard.
As Turkey’s badly written play continues, ISIS is just another iteration of the same old terror-threat. Ankara will continue to wage a war on multiple fronts against the PKK, ISIS and even the DHKP-C. It doesn’t look like Turkey’s curtain call will come anytime soon.