Turkey and the US led anti-IS coalition: Ankara is doing more than People Think

My apologies. I am traveling this week and don’t have time to write a proper post. However, I wanted to get a few thoughts on paper about Turkey’s role in the US led anti-IS air campaign in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey’s policy vis-à-vis ISIS has always been relatively clear. Ankara has not supported the group and has thought of it as a terror organization for 1.5 years. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, for example, has criticized Sayyid Qutb’s ideology and believes that his understanding of Islam is incorrect. Davutoglu, who is the architect of Turkish foreign policy, argues that Qutb’s understanding of Islam is too heavily influenced by Western political theories. These theories, he argues, are incongruent with the concept of Dar al Islam, which is a  better source of political legitimacy in the Arab/Muslim world. Thus, any suggestions that the AKP supports IS because of an overlap in religious points of view, or a shared ideology, is false. The same applies to Al Qaeda. There is no sympathy in the Turkish government for the ideology underpinning either group.

Turkey, however, did give some support to Jabhat al Nusra. Ankara did so for two reasons. First, after Turkey changed its Syria policy in August 2011, Ankara “bet the farm” on Assad falling in 6 months. After Assad was able to hold on to power, Turkey began to support a slew of rebel groups – including Nusra. Ankara felt that it was imperative to put pressure on the regime to force Assad from power. Nusra was/is an effective fighting force and worked with FSA rebel groups to battle the regime. Second, the Turkish government believes that the Assad is the root cause of extremism in Syria. Thus, if he is forced form power, the appeal of the Jihadists would decrease. In turn, Nusra would be devoid of any widespread popular support and eventually be marginalized in the “New Syria.” Turkey wanted this new Syria to be run by the Brotherhood.

These assumptions guided Ankara’s decision-making up until mid-July 2012. At this stage of the conflict, Assad pulled his forces away from the Kurdish controlled areas. This left the three Kurdish cantons, known collectively as Rojava, to the PYD – a group with links to the PKK. Turkey reacted negatively. First, Ankara threatened to intervene and “establish a buffer zone.” After backing down from this threat, Ankara tried to put the PYD under the thumb of the KDP. This also failed. This eventually prompted Ankara to reach out to members of the PYD – most notably, Salih Muslim. The two sides appeared to have reached some sort of agreement to live in quasi-harmony. Turkey, however, was not comfortable with the status quo. Ankara has kept the border gates with Rojava closed since mid-July 2012 and has only recently begun to intermittently open two border gates along the border to accommodate thousands of Kurdish refugees fleeing from Kobane. (This has had a terrible effect on the Kurdish peace process, but Ill save that for another post/article. But Ill say that this policy was short sighted.)

Turkey continued its relatively lax border policy (albeit only in non-Kurdish majority areas) up until March 2014. It did so for two reasons. First, Turkey still believed that the key to resolving the conflict was forcing Assad from power. And Ankara continued to believe that the foreign fighters contributed to this goal. Second, the opening of a rebel front against the PYD in Rojava was also seen as a net benefit for Turkish security because it degrade the PYD.

In March, Ankara began to crack down on IS oil smuggling. Shortly thereafter – and in particular, after the Sotloff video – Turkey also began to crack down on the foreign fighters. Ankara argues that it should not be singled out for the foreign fighter issue because the majority of fighters are coming from European and Arab countries. They have a point. In the early days of the conflict, intelligence sharing between the EU and Turkey was far from ideal. Things have changed. According to my sources, the EU and Turkey began to cooperate on the foreign fighter issue about a year ago. The program has since ramped up. And then the US got seriously involved after Sotloff. Put it all together and you can see the evolution of Turkey’s border policy.

Turkey’s policy options got even more complicated after the IS take over in June. Ankara ignored warning from the KRG and its allies in Iraq – the Nujaifi brothers – and kept the consulate open. (A consulate they purposefully built on the “Arab” side of Mosul in 2006 to send a message to the Kurds, I might add). During the siege of Mosul, IS took 46 Turkish hostages. These hostages “tied the hands of Turkish government” and, at least according to Ankara, prevented Turkey from adopting more forceful anti-IS language. (Side note: Davutoglu thinks the term “radical Islam” is an orientalist construction used to justify US/Western intervention in the region to advance their interests. These interests, he argues, are incongruent with Turkey’s. So you are never going to hear the type of language used in Washington in Ankara. Not gonna happen.)

The hostages were released a couple of days ago in what appears to have been a prisoner swap. The details of the swap are still coming out, but Hurriyet has reported that Liwa al Tawhid – a Syrian rebel group that has close links to Turkish NGOs and the Turkish government – arranged for the release of 50 IS hostages. President Erdogan has since hinted that Turkey may adopt a more forceful anti-IS policy.

However, as I mentioned above, Ankara had already begun to take more forceful action in March. In addition to the border stuff, counter terrorism officials, working in conjunction with their counterparts in the EU and US, are working together on the recruitment of IS fighters in Turkey. The three sides are comparing notes on “IS fighter profiles” and are working together to break up recruitment networks. This is certain to continue. Turkey has paired this with efforts to crack down on oil smuggling. The Jandarma have been setting up check points along the border to check cars for smuggled oil and more people are being prevented from entering Turkey.

Now, this does not mean that Turkey supports the US anti-IS plan. They don’t. Ankara does not support the idea of a “limited” operation to “degrade and destroy” IS in a similar manner to the operations being conducted in Somalia/Yemen. Ankara argues that limited military action is insufficient. Turkey is also concerned that once the US has “degraded” IS, it will declare “mission accomplished” and pack up and leave. This will then leave Turkey with two failed states, Iraq and Syria, on their borders. Ankara is eager for the US to use airpower to topple Assad. Turkey still views him as the root of all the problems in Syria. (If you want my take on Turkey’s Iraq policy, you can read about it here).

The international community should temper their expectations. Ankara has historically been very wary of allowing US aircraft to operate from Incirlik air base (The shift began in 1980 and the renegotiation of the US-Turkish SOFA. You can also point to the 1974 US embargo after Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus as one of the roots causes of this change to Turkish policy. Ankara has a long memory and has not forgotten the Cyprus debacle in 1974.) The list of restrictions imposed on US military action during “Operation Provide Comfort” reads like an Encyclopedia (Im being felicitous, but you get the point). At some point, one has to ask: is it worth the headache of basing out of Turkey, when the Arab states are far more willing to accommodate US aircraft. This is not an AKP specific thing. This is a Turkey thing – and it dates back to well before the AKP’s election. History suggests that even if the hostage situation did not limit Turkish action, Ankara would have reacted skeptically to a US request to use Incirlik Air Force base (more on this below).

The freeing of the hostages does provide Turkey a with a bit more wiggle room in terms of its anti-IS rhetoric. Erdogan has already stepped it up a bit, telling Charlie Rose “We have to make sure we dry out this swamp.” However, Turkey still points to Assad as being the evil that led to the creation of the “swamp.” Thus, the international community needs to get used to a Turkey that does not sanction military action from NATO air bases in Turkey, and instead limits itself to anti-IS operations on the border.

Turkey was certainly late to the anti-IS party. The border policy was short-sighted and poorly thought out. But things have changed. After the August 21 chemical attack, Turkey actively supported the US plan to hit Assad and even hinted that it would allow for the strikes to be conducted from Incirlik. Thus, it is not out of the question that Turkey could change its policy.Moreover, it helps shed light on the circumstances in which Turkey would open Incirlik (However, one should keep in mind the restrictions imposed on US operations.) Thus, if the US does want to use Incirlik – and this is unclear to me – it appears that it will have to adopt regime change as its policy in Syria.

Absent this type of change, Turkey is likely to continue to confine its role in the anti-IS coalition to the activities its already doing. These activities help. One should remember that the US program to arm and train the Syrian rebels uses a CIA run office in Reyhanli. This operation is coordinated with MIT – Turkey’s intelligence agency. Turkey’s current policy is far better than their previous approach to the conflict. And Ankara would argue that the US’ approach has finally started to reflect Ankara’s preferences for the use of force. The two sides are continuing to work together to combat IS. Differences remain. But both are better off, now that they are working more closely together.

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Autonomy in Rojava

What is the current situation in Rojava? Does the border between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan exist anymore? How deep are the divisions in Kurdistan? What does the YPG think of their Peshermga cousins? What role do regional powers play in Kurdish politics? And what does this mean for the future of the Middle East?

Today, I speak with Michael Stephens, the Director of RUSI Qatar, about his recent trip to Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan about these issues.

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Turkey Turns a Blind Eye to the PKK

What is Turkey’s current policy towards the PKK? How are PKK fighters moving from Turkey to Rojava? What is the current state of the border areas near the Turkish town of Karkamis? What are the perceptions of the YPG in Turkey? And finally, is it possible to get sick of food in Gaziantep?

Today, Aaron is joined by Gaziantep based journalist Isabel Hunter to discuss these issues.

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The PKK’s Refugee Camp in Turkey


An Ezidi refugee stands in front of the entrance to the Silopi refugee as a flag with Abdullah Ocalan’s face on it flies from a telephone pole. Source: Noah Blaser


After the uptick in fighting in Iraqi Kurdistan, thousands of Ezidis have fled their homes after the Islamic State overran the Peshmerga in numerous villages on the far western border of Kurdistan. What is Turkey’s policy towards these new refugees? Why is the PKK running a refugee camp in Turkey? What are the conditions like on Turkey’s borders with Iraq and Syria in the predominantly Kurdish southeast? How do those conditions differ from other border areas in Turkey? How do local people view the PYD’s YPG, as compared to the Peshmerga? And what does all of this mean for the current AKP led peace talks with the PKK?

Today, Aaron and Noah discuss these issues in the Turkey Wonk podcast.


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Turkey, the Islamic State, and the Kurds: Ankara’s Policies in Syria and Iraq

As Turks head to the polls today for the presidential election, the consensus is that the soon-to-be elected Tayyip Erdogan will inherit a massive foreign policy headache. To be sure, Turkey faces a set of unique foreign policy challenges stemming from the advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The IS controls two border posts with Turkey, hundreds (if not thousands) of Turks are fighting in Syria (not all for IS), and trade with Iraq has plummeted. As such, the consensus is that Turkey’s foreign policy future is grim.

Organizing the Opposition 

I agree. However, the analysis has thus far failed to fully account for Ankara’s view of the conflict in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, Turkey’s initial approach failed. This approach hinged on organizing the political opposition, whilst also aiding the Syrian opposition. Turkey did so in multiple ways. The first, and most obvious, was the opening of its borders to foreign fighters. In doing so, Ankara has indirectly aided the IS (more on this in a minute). Yet, while it has become an accepted fact that Ankara supports IS, the reality is far more complicated. To be clear, Turkey DID support hardline salafist groups, but little is known about how Ankara was running guns to the opposition.

The little that we do know comes from youtube videos, police raids in Adana, and pictures of Turkish aid being hand delivered to certain rebel groups. This aid appears to have primarily been delivered by at least three different NGOs – one of which has close ties to the government. Moreover, one of these NGOs appears to work with a Syrian NGO, which has since taken up shop in Fatih. A second NGO, based in Istanbul and Gaziantep, has posted numerous youtube videos that appear to show a rather close relationship with Liwa al Tawhid. Moreover, one final NGO has been pictured with fighters from Ahrar al Sham. What does this mean?

The first major take-away is that there does appear to be a link between NGOs and groups in Syria. Second, some of the events after December 17th suggest that the weapons were transported via Adana (allegedly with MIT escorts), where I presume that they then were shipped down towards the Syrian border.  More recently, this approach appears to have been curtailed. This is because the United States has reportedly become far more involved with the arming of certain Syrian rebel groups. The US runs this operation from locations in Turkey and Jordan. To this end, Turkey has brought its policies in Syria largely in line with other like-minded supporters of the opposition: Saudi Arabia, US, France, Jordan, etc. In tandem, Ankara did take steps to close its border (this includes holding refugees up on the Syrian side of the border). However, by this point, the damage had already been done, and IS was able to carve out its territory in Syria. Nevertheless, as of about a year ago, Turkey did take steps to bring its policies more closely in line with those of other Gulf States/West.

Yet, owing to Turkey’s proximity to the conflict, as well as its concerns about Kurdish empowerment, Ankara’s policies differ a bit from many of the other actors involved in the conflict.

The Kurdish Angle: PYD, KDP, and Iraqi Connection

Up until the crisis in Mosul, Ankara was content with the IS-PYD status quo. In other words, Turkey was ok with the idea of daily IS-YPG clashes in Kobane. The YPG was strong enough to repel the advances, whilst also not being able to defeat the IS. As such, the two appeared to be locked into a WWI style stalemate that would result in casualties on both sides and both the YPG and IS would be weakened. Yet, the clashes would not tip the balance of power, and thereby not allow for IS to take control of a third border gate (which Ankara has largely kept shut over fears of Kurdish empowerment).

Mosul changed the game. Ankara, for some unknown reason, was caught flat footed in Mosul. Ankara’s recent history in Mosul is indicative of Turkey’s major foreign policy swings in the past 7 years. In 2005, for example, Turkey supported Iraq’s Tawafuq (which was primarily made up of the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood). Ahmet Davutoglu proudly talks about Turkey’s role in convincing the Tawafuq to participate in the 2005 referendum vote on the constitution. To this end, Ankara correctly argues that it was instrumental in helping to get the constitution passed. However, this is not to suggest that they were happy with the text.

Turkey was wary of the federal nature of Iraq, did not like the idea of further Kurdish empowerment in the North, and – most critically – did not want Mosul and Kirkuk to fall under control of the Kurds. Thus, in 2006, Turkey announced that it was going to build a large consulate in Mosul, while also relying on its MIT created proxy, the Iraqi Turkoman Front (ITF) to undermine Kurdish control of Kirkuk and Mosul. Moreover, as a symbol of its political leanings, Ankara chose to build it on the Arab side of the city, rather than on the Kurdish side.

After the return of Sunnis to Iraqi politics in 2009 – which also led to the downfall of the Tawafuq, which by extension robbed Turkey of its main political proxy – Ankara gravitated toward the Iraqqiya coalition (which also incorporated the IIP leaders which Ankara had hitherto been supporting). In doing so, Ankara also threw its support behind the Nujaifi brothers. Atheel Nujaifi, whose al Hadba party controlled Mosul, campaigned on a harsh anti-Kurdish platform that emphasized the city’s Arab character. Osama Nujaifi, after the Erbil Agreement, became the speaker of Iraq’s parliament. In turn, these two guys become Turkey’s main proxies in Iraq.

Things changed in 2012. For some reason, the Nujaifis backed off on their criticism of the Kurds and reached some sort of rapprochement agreement with Barzani’s KDP. By this time, the Syrian civil war had started and Ankara had begun to arm elements of the opposition. The timing largely coincides with Assad’s withdrawal of forces away from the Kurdish areas of Syria and the establishment of the PYD administered cantons in what the Kurds call Rojava.

In turn, Turkey and the KDP began to work together to limit the spread – and appeal – of the PYD in Syria. In KDP controlled Iraqi Kurdistan, this included the closing of the border, so as to prevent the comings and goings of Kurdish fighters/civilians to PYD controlled Rojava. Second, in Turkey, the AKP launched its peace negotiations with the PKK – the sister party to the PYD in Syria. Thus, Ankara’s policy, while often narrowly portrayed by pro-AKP folks as altruistic and linked to Turkey’s democratic process, does, in fact, have a lot to do with simple realpolitik. 

Things changed after IS overran Mosul and took 49 Turkish hostages. The taking of Turkish hostages coincided with the start of the recent presidential campaign. Thus, to ensure that the AKP was not damaged politically, the AKP clamped down on media coverage. In turn, little is actually known about the days leading up to the events. However, what we do know suggests that Ankara ignored warnings from Atheel Nujaifi about the rise of IS in the city and instead chose to keep the consulate open as a symbol of Ankara’s “pro-active” foreign policy. Moreover, we also know that Ankara, largely for symbolic reasons, chose to build the consulate on the Arab side of the city, even though Mosul was never completely pacified during the surge/sahwa, and remained stronghold for al Qaeda in Iraq types, which eventually morphed into IS.

The hostages, according to Ismet Yilmaz, Turkey’s current defense minister, limits Turkish policy options in Iraq and Syria. As such, Turkey has signaled that it will not participate in the current US military action against IS in Iraq. However, it would be incorrect to think that it is only out of concern for its hostages that Ankara has shied away from striking IS, or that Turkey does not privately support US military action in Iraq.

The Maliki Connection: Murky Connections 

Ankara blames Maliki for Iraq’s current situation. Moreover, they also think of him as part of the evil that helps sustain the Assad regime against the Syrian forces fighting to overthrow him. Thus, they want him gone. This has created a series of perverse incentives for Turkish policymakers in Iraq. In the days just after the overthrow of Mosul – when we all assumed Kurdistan would be safe – Turkey, like other countries, sought to use the threat of further IS advances to pressure Maliki to resign. Once Maliki was ousted, Ankara believed that a new Prime Minister could help to address the numerous sectarian grievance that had been growing in Iraq and, in theory, stitch the country back together again. However, here is where things get a bit murky.

In Kurdistan, Turkey’s support for the export of Kurdish oil without Baghdad’s approval is an indirect signal that suggests some level of comfort for the further decentralization of Iraq. In turn, this approach represents one of those “whiplash moments in Turkish foreign policy” whereby in less than a decade, Turkey went from being champions of a centralized Iraq to advocates for further decentralization. And here is where things get interesting.

Osama Nujaifi has long advocated for the created of a Sunni federal zone in Iraq, similar to that of the KRG. Moreover, to combat IS, he advocates for the empowerment of the Men of the Naqishbendi order, who have hitherto been supporting IS because of their grievances with Maliki. Thus, to combat IS, Nujaifi is advocating for a “sahwa 2.0″ that would result in the establishment of a Sunni federal zone in Iraq. I don’t know if Ankara supports this policy, but its actions in Iraq after Mosul would suggest that they are comfortable with elements of his plan to combat IS. Does Ankara support Nujaifi’s ultimate ambition? I have no idea.

But, their actions with Barzani indicate that they are now comfortable with further decentralization in Iraq. Thus, it would appear as if Ankara would not stand in the way of some sort of agreement that would result in the further empowerment of Iraqi Sunnis via the creation of a federal zone, albeit without the break up of the Iraqi state. Now, with this in mind, it is easier to understand why Turkey has never favored airstrikes to help strengthen Maliki’s position; and instead appear to be willing to use the threat of IS to force real change in Baghdad. Any change would, in theory, include a promise to reach out the Iraq’s Sunnis, whose political leaders Ankara has always supported in Iraq. Turkey’s policy is not unique. In fact, it is similar to that of the United States, which has signaled that it could expand air strikes to bolster Baghdad, but only after Maliki is removed from power, and replaced with someone who is less sectarian. Yet, once you get past the need to get rid of Maliki, the similarities start to break down (more on this in a minute).

Ankara’s Efforts to Defeat the PKK: A Multi-Pronged Approach

Turkey’s policy is further complicated by its on-going negotiations with the PKK. To be clear, Ankara’s ultimate goal is to destroy the organization’s appeal. But, unlike previous governments, the AKP has adopted a smart, multi-pronged approach to the conflict that is ultimately rooted in elements of the “Strategic Depth” foreign policy. Thus, one prong is rooted in finding the right “security-freedom balance” that Davutoglu goes on and on about in his writings. This requires undertaking the types of reforms that we have seen in Turkey.

In parallel, Turkey is working with the Barzanis to undermine the appeal of the PKK, who both see as a threat. This policy started in 2008, but really began to gather steam in 2012, and after the fall of Mosul. As such, Ankara’s approach to the Iraqi issue did not change all that much, albeit with a noticeable uptick in anti-Maliki language. Things began to change after the IS began to defeat Pesh forces in the towns west of Erbil. The defeat of the Pesh, who had hitherto been labelled as near unbeatable, was a wake up call in Ankara. The feeling, I presume (Ankara has typically been very tight lipped about their policy), was based on the fear that IS could threaten Erbil. To be clear, I don’t think most people thought that the IS could uproot the Pesh in Erbil, but a sustained offensive could bring the capital into range of IS artillery. The bombardment of the city could then force even more citizens to flee. And, if all of the resident fled, the IS could then mount a serious offensive that could, in theory, really threaten the KDP’s hold on the city. And here is where Turkey’s policy differs from that of the US.

For Turkey, the KRG is a vital buffer between the chaos in Iraq and the Turkish border. The maintenance of a strong Kurdistan insulates Ankara from having to absorb even more refugees. In fact, Turkey’s original approach to the Syrian policy was based largely on trying to coerce the west to establish humanitarian zones – i.e., buffer zones – to prevent the mass movement of Syrians into Turkish territory (Remember all of that talk about a de-facto buffer zone after Ankara changed its rules of engagement? Part of that was aimed at protecting some Syrian refugees who, despite claims to the contrary, are held up on the Syrian side of the border and not allowed to enter Turkey).

However, unlike in Syria, Turkey already has it buffer zone. To this end, Ankara’s approach to the refugee crisis in Iraq thus far has been to build refugee camps on the Kurdish side of the border, rather than offer to host refugees on its territory (Yes, I know Turkey has accepted small numbers of Kurds/Ezidis who have fled Sincar and elsewhere.) If Erbil was threatened, than this policy could unravel, thus exposing Turkey to a wave of refugees. To sell this policy back home, Ankara has said that it is doing so to protect the Turkomen population. This is certainly part of the policy; however, the emphasis on the Turkomen allows for the government to deflect criticism from the nationalist right, whilst also justifying the more money it will spend to house refugees in what is essentially a foreign country.

The second, and perhaps more critical, aspect of the policy hinged on Ankara’s relationship with Barzani. Outside of Doha and Hamas, the KDP are Turkey’s closest allies in the region. Ankara’s relationship with Riyadh, Abu Dahbi, Cairo, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Amman, and Kuwait City are severly strained, owing to Turkeys unabashed support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, Barzani is a critical lynchpin for its efforts to defeat the PKK. The defeat of the Pesh, combined with the budgetary strain in Kurdistan, which has in turn threatened the KDP’s vast patronage network, has led to increased criticism of Barzani from other Kurdish political figures. Turkey has a vested interest in maintaining KDP dominance, or otherwise undermine its thus far successful effort to defeat the PKK.

As a result, Ankara – I have been told – was asking the United States to “do something” to protect Kurdistan in recent days. Well, now the US has done something. In turn, Ankara, I am sure, does support the US’s bombing IS, despite its silence on the subject. Thus, analysts should ignore the ravings of random AKP MPs and instead take Ankara’s silence as an indication of Turkish support for the strikes.However – and this is key – the defeat of the Pesh has put on the back burner the always overly optimistic notion that the IS advance was a net win for Kurdistan. The KRG is not ready for independence. Full stop.

As such, Barzani’s plans for a referendum on the subject were a bit premature. The recent string of military defeats, combined with the ongoing economic problems, is certain to put-off any imminent move towards independence. This, in turn, helps bolster Turkey’s position. At the end of the day, Ankara remains Barzani’s most important ally. Yet,Turkey also benefits from a weakened Barzani, who is forced to compensate by deepening ties with Ankara. Turkey, therefore, has an incentive to maintain KDP strength vis-a-vis his opponents, whilst also ensuring that Kurdistan does not become strong enough to seriously move towards independence before Ankara is ready to accept that. To be sure, that day may come (perhaps sooner than we all think), but Ankara wants to be directing traffic, not just an innocent bystander.

This approach, again, touches on the PKK issue. Before the IS advance, Ankara had supported Barzani’s efforts to isolate the PYD in Syrian Kurdistan. However, after the IS offensive, Ankara changed its position and has begun to tacitly support the moving of PKK/YPG fighters into Iraqi Kurdistan to bolster the Pesh. As part of this movement, Turkish Kurds have moved from Turkey into Kobane, where some have then been moved to the Sincar area. Moreover to facilitate this move, Barzani has opened the hitherto closed border with Syrian Kurdistan. The Turkish Kurds are reportedly coming from Tunceli. All of this is a net benefit for Ankara.

As part of its peace process with the PKK, the AKP had put forward the notion that the PKK forces in Turkey would withdraw to Iraqi Kurdistan. This policy was always a bit fanciful. It was never really going to happen in the way that it was advertised, owing the difficulties of moving fighters, as well as the refusal of the Turkish government to grant the fighters a legal guarantee that they would not be targeted from the air on their way out. As such, it was far more likely that some PKK fighters would move out, while others melted away into the population. The movement of PKK fighters to Syria and Iraq now helps indirectly bolster Barzani, whilst also decreasing the number of PKK in Turkey.

Moreover, it helps Ankara implement its previous approach to the conflict in Syria, which rested on a quiet acquiescence to IS-YPG clashes. But, again, the strength of IS now has created an incentive for Ankara to support the YPG in Syria. This is certain to be a bitter pill to swallow in Ankara. However, I think it is noteworthy that we have seen increased reports of PKK fighters from Turkey moving to Rojava, Turkey, it appears, has settled on a policy that hinges on supporting the PYD via its “turning a blind eye” to the movement of fighters to Rojava. Again, this is a short-term win for Turkish policymakers eager to ensure that the IS does not over run Kobane, whilst also weakening the PKK.

Yet, while this approach may be beneficial in the long-run, it could backfire. For one, with the introduction of US air power, it seems likely that the Pesh will be able to hold back IS. Second, if the Ezidis are evacuated, the PKK fighters who have been active in the conflict, could move back into Turkey. How will Ankara respond to this? The movement of fighters back over the border could trigger security concerns in Ankara and has the potential to raise problems between the security establishment who may want to target these convoys, and the civilian government, who has much to gain from the continuing of the peace process. How will Ankara navigate this potential problem? For now, I would guess Ankara would be happy to see heavy PKK casualties, albeit within the context of keeping the IS in check.

The Future

In turn, this then goes back to their approach in Iraq. To defeat IS in Iraq, Ankara appears to have signed up to the Nujaifi plan. However, this does not do anything for Syria. As such, Turkey, I would imagine, is eager for the US to expand the scope of its strikes against IS, albeit with the notable caveat that Maliki must first be forced to resign.

Turkey, therefore, has much to gain by privately supporting the United States’ position in Iraq – this includes their efforts to use the promise of more military strikes after political reforms are made to force changes in Baghdad. While Turkish analysts rightly point to the frayed relationship between President Obama and soon to be President Erdogan as being a problem for the future, thus far the two sides are still, largely, on the same page vis-a-vis Maliki’s political future. However, if one assumes Maliki is forced from power, the overlap in approaches begins to break down. As such, the key issue continues to rest on Ankara’s future policy in Iraq. For one, Turkey will continue to support Barzani – the US also supports this, but only up to a point, and the two sides have a serious disagreement about the oil export issue. Moreover, Ankara’s approach to the future of Sunnis in Iraq could pose problems, assuming that Ankara supports the plan put forward by Osama Nujaifi. All of this is to say that Ankara will have to walk a very difficult foreign policy tight rope moving forward.

However, I think it is fair to say that Turkey, for the first time in its history, is well positioned on the Kurdish issue. As such, Ankara is in a position to adopt a borders out policy of defense against IS. To be sure, this policy has come way too late, but Ankara must now begin to grapple with numerous issues. The first is the collapse of trade with Iraq – its second largest export market. The second is the fact that Bashar al Assad will remain in power for the foreseeable future, thus ensuring that relations with Damascus will be terrible. Third, Syria is a failed state. Fourth, Iraq could very well follow suit, should the sectarian killings in Baghdad continue, and IS be allowed to retain its strongholds, so long as they don’t threaten Erbil. And finally, Turkey is finally coming to grips with the fact that the thousands of Turks have gone to Syria to fight. The Turks who are currently fighting for IS and Jabhat al Nusra pose a serious risk, should either group choose to launch attacks in Turkey (Indeed, some, including me, believe that Turkey has already sustained such an attack in Reyhanli). And finally, all of these issues come against the backdrop that IS still holds 49 Turkish hostages.

Things certainly aren’t easy in Ankara. However, the reasons for Ankara’s decision-making to date are far more complex than they initially appear. The interesting thing to watch for is how Ankara will react if Maliki steps down. As of now, it is unclear, but Turkish policy makes certainly have their work cut out for them.

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America Engages: Providing Relief and Defending Kurdistan

What is going on in Iraqi Kurdistan? Will the US decision to use force to protect Erbil be a game changer? Will point defense work? Can ISIS advance on Erbil? Has the IS assault on Kurdistan united the Kurdish factions?

Today, Michael and Aaron discuss all things Iraq and try to get to the bottom of these questions.

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Crisis in Kobane

After the Islamic State’s rapid advances in Iraq, scant attention has been paid to their offensive in Kobane. Today, Aaron Stein speaks with Michael Stephens, Director of RUSI Qatar, about the on-going clashes between the PYD and the Islamic State on the border of Syrian Kurdistan. The two discuss Turkish policy in Iraq and Syria and finish with a more general discussion about the trajectory of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

Aaron and Michael discussed a number of articles during the podcast:

Michael Stephens and Sofia Barbarani, “While Iraq burns, Isis takes advantage in Syria,” BBC News, 18 July 2014,

Syria Kurds impose mandatory military service,” Al Jazeera English, 17 July 2014.

Rojava: Syria’s Unknown War,” VICE News, 13 December 2013.

Aaron Stein, “Turkey’s Response to ISIS and the Crisis in Iraq,” RUSI Analysis, Royal United Services Institute, 16 July 2014.

As always, you can now subscribe to the Turkey Wonk Podcast on iTunes.

PS – If you enjoyed this podcast, check out these other podcasts.

Middle East Week Podcast with Karl Morand.

Brown Moses Podcast with Eliot Higgins. 

The Arms Control Wonk Podcast with me and Jeffrey Lewis. 


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