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.

About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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