Turkey’s double trouble: ISIS and the PKK

The deadly flare-up of violence between Turkey and the PKK can still deescalate in the immediate term

Brooklyn Middleton

Published: Updated:

The past several days in southeastern Turkey have seen significant bloodshed followed by high tensions and widespread unrest that has spilled over into Istanbul and Ankara. On 20 July, a 20 year old Turkish national, identified as Abdurrahman Alagöz and suspected of having ties to ISIS, detonated his explosives-laden body at a cultural center in southeastern Turkey’s Suruc province. The explosion ripped through a gathering of Socialist Youth Association (SGDF) members, who were discussing how to rebuild the war-torn Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane. The blast killed at least 32 people and injured another 104.

Following the deadly attack, demonstrations and unrest broke out across the southeast as well as Ankara and Istanbul. As protesters condemned the perceived failure of the Turkish government to prevent the attack, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) began plotting.

During evening hours local time on 21 July, PKK cadres killed at least one man they alleged was an ISIS fighter in Istanbul while another man accused of supporting the militant group was shot dead in his house in Adana province the following day.

Later on 22 July, two days days after the suspected ISIS bombing, PKK cadres fatally shot two Turkish police officers inside the men’s shared private residence in Şanlıurfa province. The militant group quickly claimed responsibility for the revenge attack, noting that, "A punitive action was carried out... in revenge for the massacre in Suruç.” Deadly PKK ambushes continued on 23 July with two masked gunmen shooting one policeman dead and injuring another in Diyarbakır province.

It is worth noting that even prior to the deadly attack in Suruc and the retaliatory PKK attacks, tensions between the militant group and Ankara had steadily and significantly increased recently. On 11 July, the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), released a written statement indicating PKK fighters would no longer uphold the tenuous ceasefire agreed in 2013, due to perceived violations by Turkey. According to Rudaw Kurdish website, the statement read, “Our guerrillas with responsibility pledged themselves to honor the ceasefire since the beginning of the process, but the Turkish government with its arbitrary actions has already resumed the war against the Kurdish people….The government has started the war against the Kurds and we will not remain silent.”

Meanwhile, hours after PKK militants ambushed two police officers in Diyakibir, ISIS extremists once again targeted Turkey, opening deadly fire across the Syrian border and killing at least one Turkish soldier while injuring at least two others in Killis province. The Turkish military immediately returned fire and mobilized their air force.

The deadly flare-up of violence between Turkey and the PKK can still deescalate in the immediate term

Brooklyn Middleton

Within several hours of the latest ISIS attack, Ankara announced a major shift in their policy: The United States-led coalition will now be able to launch attacks on ISIS from Turkey’s İncirlik base. The decision had reportedly been made weeks ago but the timing of the announcement is indeed relevant to note.

For a fleeting moment, it appeared as though Turkey was prioritizing the threat of ISIS over the threat of the PKK. But, following the announcement, the Turkish airforce aerially bombarded ISIS positions in Syria as well as PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan – the latter of which, according to the PKK, killed not only four of the group’s fighters but destroyed whatever remained of the ceasefire.

Since pre-dawn hours on July 24, Ankara has confirmed that the Turkish air force has carried out at least two rounds of airstrikes targeting PKK positions – the first since 2013 - and at least three rounds of airstrikes targeting ISIS. To note, Ankara had in fact more aggressively targeted ISIS in the recent term even prior to the Suruc bombing. Turkish security forces detained at least 45 suspected ISIS militants – all reportedly foreign nationals - in a three day period from 9-12 July in Gaziantep; those arrests followed the detainment of at least 21 other suspected ISIS fighters in Istanbul, Kocaeli, and several other locations during that same period.

ISIS carrying out attacks on and near Turkish soil while the PKK simultaneously resumes targeting Turkish security forces is the materialization of the country’s main security threats and likely many civilians’ worst fears. With the Suruc bombing clearly underscoring the fact that Turkey remains as susceptible as ever to a mass casualty ISIS attack, it is unlikely the country can risk entering into a sustained broader conflict with the PKK at this stage.

Turkey’s right to self defense

Meanwhile, a prolonged resumption of hostilities between the PKK and Turkish security forces will only further complicate the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts to combat ISIS. It is worth reiterating here, that this is the same coalition that Turkey just offered major support to and the same coalition which needs Kurdish support. In a carefully worded five-series tweet, Deputy Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, Brett McGurk, noted U.S. support for “Turkey’s right to self defense,” but also urged de-escalation between the two parties. Most importantly, McGurk stated, “There is no connection between these airstrikes against PKK and recent understandings to intensify U.S.-Turkey cooperation against #ISIL.” The statement is unlikely to quell Kurdish fighters,’ instrumental in the fight against ISIS, fury with Ankara.

As Turkish security forces continue making mass counter-terror arrests – 590 suspected ISIS and PKK militants were detained in the last few days alone – efforts to prevent another major attack are likely to be stymied if Ankara continues fighting on two fronts at the same time.

The deadly flare-up of violence between Turkey and the PKK can still deescalate in the immediate term and must do so if Ankara’s commitment to aiding the U.S.-coalition in battling ISIS is to be long term. That said, Ankara deciding to now allow the U.S. to use its territory in its ongoing aerial offensive to attack ISIS could prove beneficial on two fronts domestically. The policy change could signal that Ankara is increasingly serious about thwarting ISIS, quelling some tension, and most importantly, can ultimately help prevent another major ISIS massacre on Turkish soil.


Brooklyn Middleton is an American Political and Security Risk Analyst reporting from Israel. Her work has appeared in Turkish and Israeli publications including The Times of Israel and Hürriyet Daily News. She has previously written about U.S. President Obama's policy in Syria as well as the emerging geopolitical threats Israel faces as it pursues its energy interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. She is currently researching Ayatollah Khomeini’s influence on Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant groups to complete her MA in Middle Eastern Studies. You can follow her on Twitter here: @BklynMiddleton.

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