During the summer, Turkey took the decision to open three of its air bases to US aircraft involved in fighting ISIS. At the same time, Ankara launched an all-out offensive against the PKK both in northern Iraq and in Turkey. Meanwhile, its policy concerning border control and refugees remains unclear. Reading Turkey’s uncertain policy on Syria is a complex undertaking.

After ISIS declared the caliphate and “abolished” the Syrian-Iraqi border in June 2014, a coalition led by the United States started launching multiple air strikes out of north-eastern Jordan and Gulf bases, but was long unable to convince Turkey to take a full part in its operations.

Marc Pierini
Pierini is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
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Ankara’s reluctance was – and remains – rooted in domestic politics: the religious-conservative (Sunni) base of the ruling AK party is focused on fighting the (Shia) Assad regime and has a certain degree of sympathy for IS’ anti-Western narrative. In these difficult electoral times (presidential election in August 2014, legislative election in June 2015, repeat legislative election in November 2015), President Erdoğan had and still has no intention to antagonize his followers. One should also remember that from June to September 2014, Turkey had forty-six hostages at the hands of ISIS and negotiated their release against freedom for ISIS followers jailed in Turkey. In parallel, ISIS’ gateway to the world for ammunitions, jihadists and exports of smuggled oil was – and still is – the Turkish border. In addition, Turkey, while accepting civilian refugees, was very reluctant to help the Syrian Kurds (PYD/YPG) when they were under direct threat from ISIS in the Kobanê district. In short, Turkey long had reasons to try and manage a relationship with ISIS, while being formally part of the anti-ISIS coalition.

Such a dual – not to say ambivalent – approach has become increasingly untenable in view of two major developments:

  • The US has put intense pressure on Turkey to allow its aircraft (armed drones and F16s) to use the bases of Inçirlik, Diyarbakır and Batman, so that its air force operations over Syria would become more efficient, less risky and less expensive. This was finally granted late July this year;

  • The Syrian Kurdish forces – known as YPG – have, with US air support, managed to repel ISIS fighters and even re-united their Kobanê and Jazeera districts. This in turn triggered an alarm with the Turkish leadership who did not want to see Syrian Kurds effectively cut off ISIS from Turkey.

This is the point at which Turkey’s failed Middle East policy (near-frozen relations with Israel and Egypt; covert support to various anti-Assad rebel groups; overt training of “vetted rebels”; uneasy relationship with the Iraqi government) collided with the domestic political scene.

Turkey is confronted with a new Kurdish equation at home and across the border. Under pressure from ISIS, the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq has received military support from the West and has grown in political importance (especially as the prospects of piecing together a Shia-Sunni-Kurdish Iraq are now dimmer than ever before). Similarly, the Syrian Kurds of PYD and YPG have received military support from the US and proven to be the best buffer against ISIS in Syria.

Meanwhile, on the domestic scene, the Kurdish-rooted party HDP has now become the biggest obstacle on the way of President Erdoğan’s dream of a super-executive presidential system.

In other words, while Ankara’s historical nightmare of a “united Kurdistan” emerging at the confines of Turkey, Iraq and Syria is not about to become a reality, Kurdish political entities in Iraq and Syria have grown into serious players. At the same time, a democratic, peaceful, modern Kurdish party has emerged in Turkey as a strong actor on the domestic scene, winning as many seats as the nationalist party MHP in the June 7 elections. This is happening against a background where the hitherto ruling party is losing its unchallenged dominance of the national scene (AKP has formed successive single-party governments from 2002 until June 2015), and where the president is seriously challenged on two counts (his executive presidency project was rejected by 59% of the voters on June 7; and all opposition parties want the corruption allegations against his entourage to be re-launched).

This is the reason why Turkey’s Western partners read the unexpected massive offensive of the PKK as a move related to domestic politics. Indeed, the PKK has resorted to violence, providing the government with every reason to launch an offensive. But one should remember that the offensive comes after almost three years of a “peace process” launched by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, and after a policy of restraint even when occasional violent incidents were triggered by the PKK. In other words, demonizing the Kurds of Turkey (both the PKK and the HDP), launching a large-scale offensive on the PKK and threatening local Kurdish politicians and journalists with “terrorism” accusations is primarily an opportunistic policy aimed at a) winning over nationalist votes, b) trying to push HDP back under the 10% threshold and therefore kicking them out of parliament.

This political context also explains the protracted discussion about an AKP-CHP coalition (which would have been the natural democratic result of the June 7 ballot) and the haste with which President Erdoğan declared the failure of coalition talks and announced his preference for a “repetition of the election”. This electioneering – together with its violent consequences and new, harsh restrictions on the media – is bound to appear as a denial of democracy for both Turkey’s international partners and a large proportion of its citizens.

While it would imprudent to predict the results of the November 1 elections, it seems certain that the current combination of domestic and external factors has pushed Turkey on a very hazardous and dangerous path whatever the outcome. An AKP single-party government after November would inevitably be transformed into a de facto executive presidency, while a hung parliament (as in the June 7 ballot) would push the president even further in a corner. Either way, a political crisis is looming and Turkey’s internal cohesion is at risk.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if Turkey’s military will take more than a symbolic part in the air strikes against ISIS. This will probably not happen before November, essentially leaving the US-led coalition alone in the fight against ISIS out of Turkish bases.

Concerning the Syrian refugees fleeing the cruelty of both the Assad regime and ISIS, Turkey has been generous in hosting them, either in cities or, for a minority of them, in organized camps. However, Turkey has done little to control the well-established traffickers who offer passage (often on unsafe boats) from the Mersin, Bodrum and Izmir regions to Greece.

This article was originally published in King’s College London’s Dialogue magazine.