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Bombing Forces Turkey to Choose Between ISIS and the Kurds

The horrific attack this week in the Turkish town of Suruç on the Syrian border, reportedly carried out by a suicide bomber affiliated with the Islamic State jihadist group (also known as ISIS), should serve as a reminder that, despite assertions by the Turkish government to the contrary, in the complex war that has been festering in neighboring Syria and Iraq, ISIS is the predominant threat to Turkish security.

Turkey’s continued foot-dragging in working with the United States to confront the ISIS threat has further undermined regional stability and soured the important U.S.-Turkish relationship but also put Turkey’s citizens in greater danger. The bombing, which targeted youths heading to help rebuild the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, which has been under repeated assault by ISIS, also highlights that the strategy of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to maintain separate policies towards Turkey’s and Syria’s Kurdish populations is unsustainable.

Hundreds of activists from the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations gathered at Amara Cultural Park in Suruç, where the blast occurred, leaving 28 dead and over 100 wounded. The group had planned to travel to Kobani to help with rebuilding efforts. A 20-year-old Turkish student of Kurdish origin has been identified as the suicide bomber, who reportedly had ties to the Islamic State. According to a Turkish government official, “The investigation is ongoing, but [there is] evidence that the suspect was linked to [ISIS].”

“If Turkey left ISIS alone, ISIS would leave Turkey alone.”

This is not the first time that ISIS has apparently targeted Turkey. In May 2013, two car bombs exploded in Reyhanli, about three miles from the Syrian border. It was the deadliest attack against Turkish civilians with 46 dead and over 100 injured. ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombings months later and warned the Turkish government of further attacks. In June 2014, 49 Turkish consulate staff and their families were taken hostage by ISIS in the Iraqi city of Mosul. They were released three months later.

Despite these earlier warnings that ISIS could not be contained, Turkey’s Syria policy over the last three years has continually focused on issues other than this threat, apparently in the misguided belief that if Turkey left ISIS alone, ISIS would leave Turkey alone.

Ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime has been one of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) top concerns, as Assad’s alliance with Shia Iran is adverse to President Erdoğan’s ties to Sunni Arabs. Support for foreign fighters against Assad and bolstering the Syrian opposition has therefore taken precedence over battling the Islamic State. Turkey has been notorious for turning a blind eye to ISIS fighters crossing the border into Syria, making clear AKP’s priorities.

The Role of the Kurds

The AKP is also antagonistic toward the Syria-based Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization in Turkey. The PYD’s recent gains in Syria, including regaining ground overtaken by ISIS in Kobani, has increasingly alarmed the Turkish government. Even more concerning for Turkey, the United States has stepped up assistance efforts to the Syrian Kurds, who have proven a reliable ally in fighting the Assad regime.

For the Turkish government, however, Kurdish success in the region indicates a growing threat. Instead of championing their feats against ISIS, Syrian Kurds were harshly criticized by Erdoğan and the AKP. Erdoğan offered a strong statement claiming, “I say to the international community that whatever price must be paid, we will never allow the establishment of a new state on our southern frontier in the north of Syria.” Such views, however, threaten the ongoing peace process between the AKP and the PKK in an effort to normalize relations.

With its resources, geographic location, and regional sway, Turkey has the potential to be a key partner against the Islamic State, but it has been lackluster so far in its cooperation with the West. It was reluctant to aid the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani until enough international pressure mounted and has yet to allow U.S. warplanes to use its strategically located Incirlik air base to strike ISIS. A former senior State Department advisor, Joshua Walker, claimed he has “never seen the level of public tension that [he’s] seeing right now. Everybody is anti-ISIS and it’s just confounding for the U.S. administration how Turkey could possibly not be 100 percent on board.” Although Erdoğan and the AKP have verbally condemned ISIS and its attacks, their actions send a different message.

A concerted Turkish response to the Suruç bombing will be made difficult by the country’s lack of a new post-election government; talks to form a coalition government continue, without effect so far, after the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in the June 7 election. But the recent bombing should make forming a government, rather than pushing for new elections, a national priority for all parties as well as refocusing the main issues that are subject of coalition negotiations.

Two Choices for Turkey

First, it is beyond time for Turkey to make confronting ISIS and supporting U.S. operations on this front a priority in Syria and Iraq. In the past, Turkey has had a number of reservations about cooperation against ISIS, and although Turkey has increased efforts to crackdown on ISIS, it can be doing more. Providing greater U.S. access to Incirlik, a strategically-located Turkish air base, is a key example. Turkey’s refusal to allow U.S. warplanes to launch combat missions against ISIS from Incirlik air base significantly hampers U.S. efforts, as the base is in close proximity to targets in both Iraq and Syria.

Also problematic is Turkey’s porous borders with Iraq and Syria. Its geographical location makes it easy for foreign fighters, weapons, money, and supplies to pass through and end up in Iraq and Syria, especially after ISIS took over a key border crossing. Because, up until recently, the Turkish government’s policy has been to allow foreign fighters and jihadists easy access to Iraq and Syria, Turkey is now finding it difficult to patch up its borders. Greater cooperation with U.S. and Western intelligence to stem the flow of jihadists, therefore, is critically important.

Second, Turkey needs to evince greater solidarity with both its own and Syria’s Kurdish populations. The AKP’s refusal to confront ISIS has largely stemmed from them sharing two joint enemies, not just the Assad regime but also the PYD and its growing influence in Northern Syria. But whether Ankara likes it or not, ISIS does not distinguish between the Syrian Kurds and the Turkish Kurds that support them. With the Suruç bombing, ISIS appears to have declared that it will take revenge for its mounting losses to the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) by attacking behind the conflict’s front lines, in Turkey’s Kurdish areas.

This leaves Turkey with two choices: It can double down on its opposition to the PYD and leniency towards ISIS. This would mean largely tolerating the group’s operations within Turkey, alienating Turkey’s Kurds, and throwing out the progress made toward peace with the PKK over the last two years. Alternatively, Turkey can choose to pair its domestic peace process with a policy of engagement toward the PYD and confrontation of ISIS. Choosing this path might require the AKP to reject its most likely coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party that rejects the Kurdish opening, but would be the best option to bring stability to Turkey and the region.

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