Menu Close

Turkey joining Islamic State offensive — so why is it targeting the Kurds?

Turkish troops patrol the Syrian border as airstrikes begin. EPA/Deniz Toprak

Between 03.40 and 03.53 on July 24, three Turkish F-16 jets bombed three Islamic State targets in Syria. This was the first time the Turkish military has taken direct action against the terrorist group.

As the airstrikes began, Turkish police arrested a large number of suspected IS sympathisers across the state. The Turkish government has also opened the strategically important Incirlik airbase to Western allies engaged in the bombing campaign against IS. US officials have called this a “game-changer”. Turkey, a key Middle Eastern state and NATO ally, has formally joined the coalition against IS.

But the decision to get involved, after months of international pressure, has not been made entirely out of a sense of obligation. There is political manoeuvring, and a domestic agenda. Alongside the IS offensive, Turkey has also reportedly launched a crackdown on positions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who are now claiming the attacks bring about the end of a two-year ceasefire between the government and the Kurds.

Show of force

The use of Turkish bases will allow the anti-IS coalition to strike key targets more frequently, reducing the distance that jets will have to fly to Raqqa. The city is some some 2,000 miles from Gulf airbases but only 400 miles from the Incirlik base. It is reported that an IS-free zone is sought along the Turkey, Syria border.

The agreement comes after months of dialogue between Washington and Ankara, amid allegations that Turkish security forces had been secretly supporting IS in an attempt to weaken the power of Kurdish groups and the Assad regime.

251 people were arrested across the country in police raids. EPA/STR

For the many foreign fighters seeking to join IS, Turkey was a key transit route to cross into Syria and join the group, and Ankara’s reluctance to stop them caused much concern amongst the anti-IS coalition.

It may be that Turkey felt compelled to take action after a recent wave of attacks within its own borders. A cross-border strike recently killed a Turkish soldier and a suicide bombing on July 20 killed 32 people in the province of Suruc.

The attacks have highlighted Turkey’s proximity to the conflict in Syria, while also stressing the threat within Turkey. The suicide bomber was, after all, a Turkish student. Following a year of debate over how best to engage with IS, these recent attacks left Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with little option.

Undermining the Kurds

Complicating Turkey’s position in the region is how it engages with its large Kurdish population. This group has long struggled for greater rights in Turkey and across the region.

But Kurdish fighters have been a leading force in the fight against IS in the North of Syria. This left Turkey in a bind: it needed to appease NATO allies by helping fight IS but was reluctant to work alongside the Kurds – or do anything that would increase their autonomy or to bolster their calls for independence.

Prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu issued a statement as the operations began stating that “the Turkish Republic is adamant on fighting all terrorism without distinction as it has always done, be it the terrorist organisation of Daesh [IS], the terrorist organisation of the PKK or any other international terrorist organisation”.

Of course, there is a national interest underpinning the decision to get involved in the fight against IS. The Kurds are gaining autonomy in Iraq and Syria and the world is becoming increasingly aware of their plight in Turkey. In striking against groups framed by Anakara as terrorist organisations – and by framing both IS and the PKK as such – the government is seeking to shift the public narrative away from sympathy to the Kurds and to reduce their influence in Turkey.

This bombing campaign is then, at least a part of a broader project, aimed at reducing the power of Kurdish groups both in Turkey and across the border as much as it is an attempt to keep Ankara in a position of influence across the Middle East and on the global stage.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 187,300 academics and researchers from 5,000 institutions.

Register now