On the morning of Monday, July 20, a bomb carried by a supporter of the Islamic State ripped through a crowd in Turkey, breaking the tense, years-long standoff between the Turkish government and the Islamic State. Turkey bombed IS positions on the following Thursday night and, on Friday, officially announced that the United States would be allowed to fly missions from the U.S. military base in the southern part of the country.
The Turkish government surprised many in the international community when, shortly after bombing IS positions, its airstrikes were directed toward military camps in northern Iraq belonging to the PKK, an armed Kurdish separatist group that has, until recently, had a confrontational relationship with the Turkish government.
These events and Turkey’s leap into military hostilities with two different groups is a result both of years of poor foreign policy vis a vis IS and fears regarding the consequences of greater Kurdish political power both inside and outside of Turkey.
Growing Tensions between Turkey and the Kurds
The suicide bomber, tentatively identified as a twenty-year-old Turkish student, detonated a bomb while standing among a group of left-wing political activists in the border town of Suruc, leaving thirty-two dead and at least 100 injured. The group had planned to travel a short distance across the border to the Syrian town of Kobani, in order to deliver toys and aid to the children living in the bombed-out city.
Kobani is in the Kurdish controlled region of northern Syria. The town became famous over the last year, after the Islamic State pursued a long but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to capture it from Kurdish forces. The majority of Kobani’s population fled over the border into Turkey and stayed in camps or makeshift accommodations in and around Suruc, while the fighting continued.
At the time, Turkey was criticized by many in the Kurdish (as well as international) community for refusing to provide military support to the Kurdish fighters defending Kobani. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s prediction that Kobani would fall to the Islamic State, coupled with his rhetoric equating the PKK (with which Turkey officially had a cease fire, at the time) and the Islamic State added fuel to growing resentment among Turkey’s Kurdish population. Last fall, tensions erupted into riots in multiple cities in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southwest. Dozens were killed in resulting clashes between rival Kurdish groups, as well as between Kurds and the police.
The ceasefire between the PKK and Turkey managed to hold through the siege of Kobani, as well as a year plus of stalled progress toward implementing greater rights for Kurds in Turkey, which Erdogan’s AKP party had promised as part of the peace process with the group.
The Suruc bombing proved to be the spark that reignited open hostilities. After the bombing, the PKK claimed responsibility for killing two Turkish police officers in their homes last Wednesday, as well as for the killing of one police officer and wounding of another on Thursday. The PKK specified that killings were perpetrated in retaliation for the deaths in Suruc and that it holds the Turkish state (and its agents, including the police) responsible for the bombing. On Friday afternoon, while discussing Turkish airstrikes against IS targets, President Erdogan once again made it clear he considers the PKK to be a terrorist organization that is as threatening to Turkish security as the Islamic State. On Friday night, the PKK kidnapped a police officer just as Turkish military began bombing PKK strongholds in northern Iraq.
As protests erupted among Kurds and their supporters across Turkey in the days after the bombing, the PKK officially declared the two and a half year ceasefire with the Turkish state to be null and void.
Turkish Support for the Islamic State Is Complicated
Suruc provoked a violent reaction from the PKK because it believes, as many do, that the AKP government, which has ruled Turkey for the past thirteen years, provided direct support and aid to the Islamic State. The Turkish government opened itself up to these accusations because of its previous official, and unofficial, border and refugee policies. Turkey has generously opened its hospitals to refugees for no-cost treatment, and appears to have implemented a no questions asked policy when treating wounded fighters. Until recently, Turkey also turned a blind eye toward militants and refugees who wished to cross back and forth over its border with Syria. During the siege of Kobane, however, Kurdish citizens of Turkey were prevented from crossing the border to join the fight against IS. All of these policies undoubtedly benefited the Islamic State.
In other ways as well, the Turkish government has, until recently, appeared hesitant to crack down on Islamic State supporters operating within its borders. Websites supporting IS operated freely, despite Turkey’s notorious internet censorship laws. Recruiters for the group appear to have been able to seek out and groom new members without much fear of prosecution. As recently as a few days before the Suruc bombing, Islamic State supporters held a public prayer meeting in Istanbul to celebrate the recent holiday marking the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
The Turkish government’s crackdowns on protests condemning the Islamic State, while allowing radical Islamist protesters to march in central Istanbul unmolested, has only added to the perception that it (not so) secretly supports the Islamic State.
Despite this circumstantial evidence, it has always been incorrect to assume that the Turkish government considers the Islamic State an ally, or even a non-threat. Instead, Turkey’s policies toward IS have largely revolved around two factors. The first is tied to the government’s goal, since the beginning of the Syrian war, to support the non-Kurdish militant factions fighting Assad while isolating the Syrian-Kurdish groups, which it views as coterminus with the PKK. The second motivating factor is the Turkish government’s recognition that IS, if provoked, had the potential to wreak havoc in Turkey.
A somewhat flawed, but still illustrative, metaphor of the dynamic between Turkey and the Islamic State is a fight between a lion and a honey badger. A lion can eventually overpower and kill the notoriously feisty and aggressive honey badger, but it will often suffer painful injuries in the ensuing fight. Hence, large predators like lions do not seek out, and will even try to avoid, provoking a fight with a honey badger.
Like the lion in this situation, the Turkish government adopted the principle of non-provocation, which was most visibly applied when IS captured its diplomats in the Iraqi city of Mosul last year. It was inevitable that this policy would backfire and create the situation Turkey now faces, namely an entrenched network of Islamic State supporters within its borders, who can more easily retaliate when Turkey (again, inevitably) is forced to crack down against the group.
Turkey’s government is guilty of poor foresight, but not of directly aiding the Islamic State.
For its part, the Islamic State made its views on Turkey and its government clear in the IS Turkish language publication Konstantiniyye. The Turkish government and all its leaders are considered illegitimate by IS supporters, since the Islamic State rejects the concept of democratic elections. IS believes that Turkey, like the rest of the world, will need to eventually be conquered and brought under the purview of the one true “Islamic State.” The publication clearly implies that Turkey was useful to the group, but only so long as it allowed fighters and supplies to pass through to IS-held territory.
Future Stability in Turkey Depends Upon a Renewed Cease-Fire with the PKK
Turkey and the Islamic State were, thus, until recently engaged in an uneasy standoff, with Turkey trying to avoid terrorist attacks by IS and IS trying to avoid having its supply lines cut off by Turkey. The Islamic State’s desire to avoid provoking Turkey may also explain why, even though the suspected perpetrators of the Suruc bombing and another bombing of a Kurdish political rally in June have clearly documented ties to IS, the Islamic State has never officially taken responsibility for either attack.
The best thing Turkey can do right now to maximize its stability and security is to find a way to renegotiate its cease fire with the PKK. This is, of course, going to be extremely difficult and likely deeply unpopular given the recent attacks by the PKK, but the future stability of Turkey quite literally depends on it. There is no way that Turkey can successfully fight both the PKK and IS simultaneously; it is going to have enough trouble uprooting IS supporters alone.