Bombing ISIS and the Kurds without a Syria strategy

After months of speculation about a looming change in Turkey’s Syria policy, last week’s announcement that the Turkish government finally gave permission for the U.S.-led coalition to use the NATO airbase at Incirlik to target ISIS in Syria was generally greeted with enthusiasm.

Praised as a step forward in the efforts to degrade ISIS, the agreement has been widely reported to involve the establishment of a de facto safe zone stretching some 68 miles across Syrian territory that would in theory allow thousands of refugees and internally displaced people to find some safety.

Another big problem of this joint Turkish-American action against ISIS is that the same fundamental disagreement on what to do about Bashar al-Assad remains

Manuel Almeida

This also fed into the expectations that the area in question could be used by various armed opposition groups for re-supplying, training and planning their operations against both ISIS and the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Undeniably good news

However, while the new resolve of the Justice and Development Party to deal with the threat posed by ISIS is undeniably good news, the more details emerge about the U.S.-Turkish agreement the more reservations arise about its effectiveness and potential repercussions.

This move comes hand in hand with a new determination by the Turkish government to address the growing Kurdish irredentism, which many within Turkish government circles still consider a far bigger threat than ISIS. In addition to the airstrikes Turkey is now conducting in Syria against ISIS, it has also been striking the bases of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), considered by both Turkey and the U.S. to be a terrorist group. Turkey’s involvement in the anti- ISIS coalition is also widely interpreted as a move to curb the growing influence of the Democratic Union Party (YPG), the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, along three cantons in northern Syria.

Last week’s suicide bombing in Suruc, a predominantly Kurdish city in southwest Turkey, which killed over 30 people, precipitated an outcome that was looking evermore inevitable. The Kurds again blamed the Turkish government for not doing enough to protect them against ISIS and the PKK retaliated against Turkish security forces. As a response, Turkish jets have been bombing PKK militias Turkey and in northern Iraq. The PKK has in turn responded with more attacks on Turkey’s security forces.

Violation of the 2013 ceasefire

This violation of the 2013 ceasefire between the Turkish government and the PKK, as well as the possible collapse of the peace negotiations, is bad news not only for Turkey but for the international efforts to defeat ISIS in Syria. Turkey is getting involved simultaneously in two conflicts and the key role of the Syrian Kurdish militias (the People’s Protection Units) in the fight against ISIS may eventually be compromised.

With Turkey’s main political parties still holding talks to form a ruling coalition, the conflict between the AKP and the PKK is generating tensions between the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the (still) ruling party. The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been accused by opposition figures of trying to establish a connection between the PKK’s military actions and the HDP’s unprecedented electoral success.

Another big problem of this joint Turkish-American action against ISIS is that the same fundamental disagreement on what to do about Bashar al-Assad remains. Ever since the idea of using Turkish territory to conduct strikes against ISIS has been mulled, the Turkish government had always retorted with the demand that it should involve the declaration of a no-fly zone, the establishment of a safe haven inside Syrian territory, and a military effort to weaken the pro-Assad forces.

Over the last few days, U.S. officials have been insisting there is no plan to enforce a safe zone in Syrian territory, dismissing widespread reports to the contrary.

The positive elements to take out of these developments is that the Turkish government finally decided to face head-on the threat ISIS represents and the anti- ISIS coalition has gained strategic leverage to conduct its operations. But there are various causes for concern, chief among which is the ongoing half-baked approach to the Syrian conflict led by the current U.S. administration, focused almost exclusively on bombing ISIS.


Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:46 - GMT 06:46
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