Wednesday, October 22, 2014

House of Kurds: ISIS-Kurdish Fighting Threatens Turkey’s Stability

Intense fighting between ISIS and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters over the past month for control of the strategic city of Kobani on the Turkish-Syrian border threatens not only domestic stability within Turkey, but also the peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). 

Kobani poses a strategic threat as its capture by ISIS would put the terrorist group in full control of the area from Raqqa, Syria to the Turkish border, a span of more than 60 miles/100 kilometers. Worse, the geography of the region here is rather flat, and there are legitimate concerns that control of Kobani would lead to surrounding cantons and ultimately to control of the entire 1200 km Turkish-Syrian border. Airstrikes by the United States, Saudi Arabia and the UAE against ISIS to the south, southeast and southwest of Kobani succeeded in destroying multiple armed vehicles, including one carrying anti-aircraft artillery, a tank and an ISIS unit. According to the State Department, these airstrikes are aimed at disrupting ISIS command and control, as well as destroying the group’s infrastructure and sources of fuel and financing.

On Monday, Turkey made an abrupt and significant policy shift, announcing that it would allow passage by land for Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to travel from northern Iraq through Turkish territory to northern Syria to provide much needed reinforcements of ground troops to Kurdish fighters in Kobani. US and allied airstrikes around Kobani have been successful in stemming the aggressive gains of ISIS, but have also effectively cut off ground routes to the city. The shift in Turkish policy may allow for an influx of ground troops, which, combined with the weapons supplies and medicines airdropped into Kobani by the US military, will be needed to prevent ISIS from capturing Kobani.

This change is significant in the context of Turkey’s rocky history with its Kurdish population and the PKK. Thus far, Turkey had resisted assisting Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) fighters in Kobani due to PYD’s links to PKK. Ethnic Kurds, who comprise approximately 20% of the Turkish population, have historically been marginalized and persecuted within their home country. The PKK launched its insurgency against the Turkish state in 1984, demanding an independent Kurdistan incorporating the Kurdish regions of not only Turkey, but also Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Over the past thirty years, the majority of the violence occurred in southeastern Turkey, leading to the deaths of more than 30,000 people and the demolition of hundreds of Kurdish villages.

In the past decade, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pushed for peace talks with the PKK, and the group has ceased its call for an independent Kurdistan, instead pushing for greater autonomy, and cultural and linguistic rights within Turkey. Despite this progress, as recently as a month ago, Erdogan openly equated the Kurdish PYD fighters with ISIS fighters, referring to both parties as terrorists. Peace talks have been further jeopardized by Turkey’s non-interference stance in the Kurdish fight against ISIS in Kobani, with Kurdish politicians expressing frustration with the Turkish government for failing to arm Kurdish fighters, effectively accusing the government of supporting ISIS through inaction.

Until now, Turkey’s non-interference stance seemed to be the best move for the central government to avoid sparking sectarian unrest or violence within the country. Most of the fault lines that lead to violence in the Middle East exist within Turkey: the political divide between Islamists and non-Islamists, the ethnic divide between the Kurds and Turks, and the sectarian divide Sunni-non-Sunni populations. However, recent events spell the end of the non-interference policy, as deadly clashes between ethnic Kurds and Islamist groups, nationalist groups, and Turkish police erupted in various Turkish cities.

Indeed, while there have been many pro-Kurdish rallies and protests within Turkey, there is support for ISIS as well within Turkey’s Muslim majority population: according to the International Crisis Group, while there is condemnation for the brutal methods employed by ISIS, there is sympathy for its cause. Hundreds of Turks are rumored to have joined ISIS’s ranks, and propaganda materials calling for jihad have begun circulating at universities, including one university in Istanbul.

Turkey faces the challenging task of maintaining its fragile relationship with the PKK, quelling the violent sectarian clashes within its borders, and preventing ISIS from encroaching across Turkish borders. Turkey cannot stand against ISIS alone and will have to find a way to reconcile animosity or distrust of the PYD troops in order to support regional and international stakeholders in the existing anti-ISIS coalition. Should Kobani fall to ISIS control, it would almost definitively spell the end of the peace process and ensure increased violent protests within the country. Only one thing is certain: the time for Turkey’s policy of non-interference has come to an abrupt and indisputable end.

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