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Turkey’s dual Kurdish policy could backfire

This dual Turkish policy towards the Kurds can have other consequences beyond the dreadful prospect of having ISIS as its immediate neighbour

Manuel Almeida

Published: Updated:

Over the last few days President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has been quite vocal about the threat that ISIS represents to Turkey and the Muslim world. “It is unbearable that people are killing and being killed under cries of Allahu Akbar [God is great],” he said. The president has also called on the U.S-led coalition trying to contain ISIS in Iraq and Syria to step up the efforts to train and equip the Syrian opposition to defeat ISIS (and Bashar al-Assad).

Following repeated pleas for help from the besieged Kurds and a warning from Erdogan that the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane was "about to fall" to the radical militants of ISIS, the U.S.-led coalition intensified airstrikes that only managed to push the militants back momentarily.

Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's public expressions of concern about ISIS advances in northern Syria do not disguise the government's inaction and apparent hesitation to provide military back up to the Kurds on the other side of the border. This position does not seem to have changed with the release of the 46 Turkish hostages captured by ISIS in Mosul in June. Allowing the refugees through the border to escape ISIS is insufficient in the eyes of the Kurds.

This dual Turkish policy towards the Kurds can have other consequences beyond the dreadful prospect of having ISIS as its immediate neighbor

Manuel Almeida

Unsurprisingly, Turkey's Kurds have protested and clashed with police across Turkey over the last couple of days, with several deaths reported. In Brussels, Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt and other major European cities, Kurdish groups have also expressed solidarity with the Kurdish resistance and called for support.

Behind the Turkish government's hesitation to allow the passage of men and weapons to Kobane, or assist militarily the besieged Kurdish fighters, could be the fear of retaliatory actions by ISIS cells operating inside Turkish territory. The concern for the safety of Turkish troops guarding the Tomb of Suleyman Shah, 25 miles into Syrian territory and besieged by ISIS militants, can be playing a role. More broadly and in a pragmatic fashion, refraining from direct involvement in the intricate Syrian conflict could be a plausible motive for the government to trade very carefully. But the Turkish government has some other considerations about Syria.

On Oct. 2, the Turkish parliament approved the motion that authorizes the government to deploy the army in Syria and Iraq and the deployment of foreign troops in Turkish territory to combat ISIS. This move has been widely misinterpreted as a signal that Turkey would finally act immediately and decisively against ISIS. Turkish declared priorities in Syria continue to be the provision of humanitarian assistance and the establishment of no-fly zones within Syria to curb the refugee flows, plus the initial goal of overthrowing Assad via support to the Syrian opposition (jihadists included).

Three main foes

Key for the Turkish government’s Syria policy is the presence across the border of what it considers three main foes: the brutal Assad regime, the radical ISIS, and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdogan's remarks about ISIS and the PKK after the parliamentary motion was approved are revealing: “It is wrong to consider them in different ways’’, he said, adding “We need to handle them all together on a common ground’’.

Despite the delicate moment for Syria’s Kurds in Kobane and surrounding areas, the Turkish government believes the Kurds are those who have benefited the most from the chaos in Syria. Kobane sits in one of the three enclaves that the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), the Syrian Kurdish arm of the PKK, received from Assad as a bargaining chip in his fight against the Syrian opposition.

ISIS around the corner

Turkey has fostered strategic and economic relations with the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Yet the scenario of a de facto autonomous Kurdish territory in northern Syria ruled by the PYD and dominated by the PKK is a nightmare for Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). The Turkish government obviously welcomes the buffer provided by the People’s Protection Units, the PYD’s armed wing, and other Kurdish militias against ISIS. At the same time it is trying to push for the PKK’s disarmament and ensure that the PKK’s allies in Syria remain relatively weak. It is also attempting to pull Syria’s Kurds away from the PKK’s influence and bring them closer the moderate Sunni Arab opposition and the KRG’s leadership.

This dual Turkish policy towards the Kurds can have other consequences beyond the dreadful prospect of having ISIS as its immediate neighbour. It can backfire internally against Erdogan and the AKP. The PKK might decide to undermine or delay the peace process with the government, one of Erdogan’s political flagships. Erdogan’s very own ambitions to take advantage of the constitutional revision process to transform the ceremonial presidential post into an executive one also require the support of pro-Kurdish parties. With ISIS around the corner, the Turkish government has some tough choices to make.

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Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant focusing on the Middle East and emerging markets. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science, and is the former editor of the English edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.