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US–Turkey cooperation on ISIS is bad news for Kurds

A victim, with a flag of the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations covering him, lies on the ground following an explosion in Turkey on July 20 2015. Ozcan Soysal/REUTERS

A deadly week in Turkey has pulled Ankara closer to the US in the fight against ISIS and led to an emergency meeting on Tuesday during which NATO members expressed support for bombing strikes carried out by the Turkish government.

But those strikes should raise concerns in the US about the Kurds who are also being targeted by Turkish attacks.

A violent week

The transformative week in Turkey began on July 20 when Sey Abdurrahman Alagoz, a 20-year-old Turkish suicide bomber, attacked a group of youth activists from the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations (SGDF), killing 32.

It was the first ISIS attack inside Turkey.

Before the strike, Turkey had been reluctant to engage in military strikes against ISIS or to stem the flow of potential fighters through its borders. But late last week it opened up air bases to the US and started its own bombing missions of ISIS targets.

However, ISIS is not Turkey’s only target. Turkey’s main foes in the region are the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the affiliated People’s Protection Unit (YPG). The PKK is an armed Kurdish group labeled a terrorism organization by Turkey, the US and UK – but which does not appear on the UN sanctions list. The PKK has been fighting for independence from Turkey for decades.

These attacks bring to an end a ceasefire that was declared two years ago.

My observations of events in Turkey during research visits this summer and last year indicate that the Turkish state’s response to the suicide attack will try to achieve a number of goals.

Weakening ISIS may be at the bottom of that list.

Turkey is more interested, I would argue, in attacking PKK and YPG, rounding up YPG supporters, establishing control over the Turkish–Syrian border and contributing to unseating of the Syrian Ba'ath regime.

Decades of conflict

More than 20 million Kurds live in Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq. All of these groups want autonomy and representation.

After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Kurds in northern Iraq established an autonomous region.

Kurds in Syria have pursued similar aspirations. They have achieved a degree of autonomy in Kobane, where they successfully fought against ISIS last year.

Kurds in Iran are equally engaged in a struggle for autonomy.

Turkey has faced challenges from the separatist movement of the PKK since the early 1980s. Their relationship is defined by armed conflict and mutual mistrust.

The first full-scale PKK insurgency began in 1984 and lasted 15 years, until the PKK unilaterally adopted a ceasefire. A second insurgency started in 2004 and resulted in the loss of 40,000 lives. However, in 2013, a truce was reached and a new era of peace negotiations and coexistence began.

Many Turks came to recognize the legitimate grievances of the PKK. They hoped peace negotiations would end the sporadic attacks by the PKK aimed at the Turkish state.

In Turkey’s recent elections, this rising support for a peaceful resolution was demonstrated in the electoral victory of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP. The HDP received 13.1% of the vote and secured 80 seats in the 550-seat parliament.

A complex relationship with Syria

The Syrian conflict has high stakes for Turkey. The two countries share a 500-mile border. Turkey hosts more than one million Syrian refugees.

Since the uprising in Syria in 2011, the Turkish government has courted various rebel groups with the hope of removing the Ba'athist regime of Bashar Assad.

Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan has long insisted that any attack against ISIS should also be extended against the Syrian regime as he viewed the latter as the real cause for the rise of ISIS.

Turkey has not considered ISIS a primary threat and has thus maintained a lukewarm stance toward US attacks on ISIS.

Reports from as recently as last year indicate that Turkey has maintained warm relations with the group’s commanders and has allowed a flow of weapons to the group.

At the same time, the Syrian conflict also empowered the PKK in Kobane, where the PKK defeated ISIS after 134 days of fierce battle in October 2014.

This success of the PKK was not welcomed by the Turkish government. Until the events of last week, Turkey was hesitant to join the US in attacking ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But now Erdogan is talking about threats to Turkey’s security.

The question is how exactly that threat is defined. What did President Obama and Erdogan agree to in exchange for the coordination of efforts against ISIS in the region?

US and Turkey: different priorities

For Erdogan and the Turkish state, the agreement may translate into having a free hand to target Kurds inside Syria as well as establish a partial no-fly zone in the border between Turkey and Syria where the Turkish military could operate freely.

A US Navy patrol aircraft takes off from Incirlik airbase in Turkey on July 26 2015. Murad Sezer/REUTERS

Erdogan and his AKP government want to replace Assad’s regime with a regime that is Sunni and friendly toward the Gulf States. They also want to destroy the separatist secular Kurdish forces of PKK and YPG who are fighting for a Kurdish state.

What Turkey calls “terrorist” may not match the US’s definition. In the coming days and months, under the pretext of a war against terrorism, we may see a concerted effort not only against Kurdish fighters but against secular Kurds in general.

The Turkish state has already rounded up more than 5,000 “suspected terrorists” from 12 provinces. Evidence emerging on social media indicates that this number includes members of the Kurdish socialist youth group targeted by the suicide bombing.

Not everyone in Turkey agrees

Not all political forces inside Turkish state are behind Erdogan’s anti-Kurdish policy, however.

The Turkish military, which plays a central role in Turkish society, appears concerned about ISIS. They view the group as a serious potential threat to Turkey’s security. Tensions between the Turkish military and Erdogan’s party have existed since the latter first won electoral victory in 2002.

Turkish citizens increasingly oppose Erdogan’s domestic policy, which they view as authoritarian.

The Turkish state seems to have committed itself to military attacks on the PKK for now. At the same time, it is taking preemptive action to secure Turkish borders by building a security barrier and a moat.

The irony is that the only force in the region that has put up an effective fight against ISIS has been the secular Kurds in Kobane.

Yet, in its initial reaction to Turkish attack against PKK, the US Ambassador Brett McGurk in a tweet expressed America’s support.

If the US aims to reduce the threat of ISIS and its influence in the region, the current Turkish policy and the US compromise with Turkey could at best be counterproductive. At worst, it may strengthen ISIS.

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