Turkey Has 99 Problems and the PKK Is Just One

A memorial service held at Bogazici University for Nejat Ağırnaslı, a recent sociology graduate who was killed fighting alongside Kurdish forces in Kobane against the Islamic State (Photo Credit: Erin O'Brien)

A memorial service held at Bogazici University for Nejat Ağırnaslı, a recent sociology graduate who was killed fighting alongside Kurdish forces in Kobane against the Islamic State (Photo Credit: Erin O'Brien)

Taking classes in Turkey has not been your average study abroad experience. Over the last week, tensions have been running high throughout Istanbul as every conversation I have had with fellow students, professors and community members has been dominated by the situation that is currently unfolding along Turkey’s southeastern border.

While in Istanbul, I have witnessed my classmates engage in peaceful protests that have ended in violence, police brutality and unwarranted arrests; I have heard stories of friends that have had the unfortunate experience of getting teargased in Taksim Square. A few days ago, a student from my university, Bogazici University, was killed by the Islamic State (IS) while fighting to defend Kobane, a primarily Kurdish key border town that militants have been fighting to seize since September. With reports of an IS office in Istanbul, videos of IS members conspicuously riding public transportation in the city, and community members openly supporting IS militants, everyone has been waiting to see the Turkish government’s reaction.

Major cities throughout Turkey, including Ankara and Istanbul, have been rocked with protests advocating for Turkish intervention to end the siege of Kobane, but many of these demonstrations have unfortunately ended in arrests, violence and deaths. In southeast Kurdish regions, as many as 35 protestors have been killed as a result of violent clashes. In Turkey, the Kurdish population and its allies are outraged at the Turkish government’s complacency in allowing a humanitarian crisis to unfold on its doorstep. As a result of Turkish inaction, Kurdish fighters, including the Peshmerga and the Kurdish Popular Protections Unit (YPG), have begun fighting in Kobane alongside international airstrikes in order to seize back the town.

Turkey’s reluctance to act in both Kobane and Syria has been met by fierce criticism throughout the international community as critics have reprimanded Turkey for failing to “act as a NATO partner” after it refused to take action in Kobane and intervene in Syria despite its close strategic proximity to the state. The United States, a longtime ally and NATO partner, has requested permission from Turkey to use its bases to launch missions against IS. There have also been requests for the use of Turkish ground forces in Syria to counter IS advances. For many, the answer seems simple: Turkey should listen to the demands of its Kurdish population and work alongside the international coalition against IS to fight the global threat that is looming on its border. But unfortunately, the situation is far more complicated.

One of the major reasons why Turkey has been hesitant to become involved in Syria is that the international coalition lacks a long-term strategy for addressing the crisis in Syria. Recently, Turkey rejected the US request to use its bases in Incirlik. Allowing the use of Turkish bases would be seen as an “act of aggression against Syria”, committing Turkey to a longer-term battle that it is not militarily prepared for. While the United States is focused primarily on defeating IS, Turkey is concerned with the situation that will arise in Syria once the United States and the coalition has accomplished its stated goals of “degrading and destroying” IS. For Ankara, allowing the Assad regime to continue its rule is simply not an option, and poses an imminent security threat to Turkey because of the shared border with Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davatoglu has stated that Turkey is “ready to do everything if there is a clear strategy,” but without a plan to address the Assad regime and long-term Syrian stability, it is too risky for Turkey to commit to a mission that does not have a clear goal in sight.

Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu has stated that international airstrikes are not enough to defeat IS, and it is therefore unrealistic to expect Turkey to intervene militarily and send ground troops to Syria without the military support of the international community. The Turkish military alone does not have the capacity to defeat both IS and the Assad regime, and has requested that the US consider a “ground operation with anti-ISIS rebels” as well as the creation of a no-fly zone over Syria. So far, however, NATO has not seriously considered this an option.

The Kurdish issue also adds another layer of complexity to the crisis. The Turkish government is hesitant to assist the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), a Kurdish group fighting in Kobane, as it is closely affiliated to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a militant group which Turkish President Erdogan has compared to ISIS and that has waged a “decades-long guerrilla war” against Turkey. There have also been talks of arming and training Kurdish soldiers fighting in Kobane if Turkey itself does not want to intervene militarily, but there is widespread fear that this military knowledge and training will be used against Ankara in the future. As of today, Turkey has finally agreed to allow the Peshmerga to use its territory to cross into Kobani. However, Cavusoglu has stated that the government is not yet ready to fully back the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, as it is “a threat to Syria’s future, territorial integrity and democratic structure”.

While many international government officials have criticized Turkey for “dragging its feet” over the crisis in Iraq and Syria, Turkey has taken some important steps to ameliorate the ongoing crisis. Ankara has agreed to share intelligence, tighten border controls to prevent the passage of foreign fighters into Syria, and assist with an American-led initiative to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels. Additionally, the Turkish government has allowed over 200,000 refugees from Kobane to cross over its border to escape persecution and violence in Syria. While the Turkish parliament has approved military operations in Iraq and Syria, it has made no further decisions regarding Turkish military intervention.

However, Turkey has a lot at stake in this fight, and will have to act quickly as the domestic and international situation continues to worsen. With protests increasing throughout Istanbul and the country’s Kurdish regions, citizens are becoming disillusioned by their government’s inaction.  The United Nations has warned that thousands of people could be massacred in Kobane, amounting to a humanitarian disaster. The PKK leadership has viewed Turkey’s failure to intervene in Kobane as counterintuitive to the peace process, and has threatened calling off all peace talks with the Turkish government if Kobane falls to the IS militants. While the Kurds have recaptured the key area of Kobane Hill, it is still believed that IS controls over half of Kobane. Although Turkey has agreed to aid Kurdish forces in the fight for Kobane, simply allowing the Peshmerga to cross over into Syria using Turkish territory may not be enough for Turkey to avoid a full-fledged disaster on its southern border.