July 29, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Turkey Changes Course Against the Islamic State

• Turkey has won NATO support for its approach to the terrorist threat, although it presents it as coming as much from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as from the Islamic State

• The extent of Turkey’s commitment to fight the Islamic State will be crucial to the future of the coalition campaign

• Turkey may see action against the Islamic State as a way to gain support for its campaign against the Kurds, who will remain its greater enemy

• The Islamic State has already decided that the period of mutual tolerance with Turkey is over; it remains to be seen how much impact this will have on the group’s capability.


The North Atlantic Council, NATO's senior political decision-making body, met yesterday at Turkey’s request and issued a statement in support of the country's response to recent terrorist attacks, including the one in Suruç on July 20—apparently launched by the so-called Islamic State—that killed over 30 members of a pro-Kurdish student association. The statement skirted around the controversy within the NATO alliance as to the proportionality of Turkey’s response and its inclusion of Kurdish targets.

Article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty allows any member country to call for consultations if it believes its territorial integrity, political independence, or security is under threat. Such meetings are rare, but this is the third time that Turkey has asked for one in the context of the Syrian civil war. The previous two, which Turkey called in 2012 in response to aggressive actions by the Syrian government, served to notify NATO that Turkey would look to the alliance for direct support if Syrian attacks escalated. As a result, NATO agreed to deploy Patriot missiles to bolster Turkey’s defense.

But at this latest meeting, Turkey very deliberately conflated the threat from the Islamic State with the threat from the Kurdish separatist movement, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and its supporters in Syria. Some NATO members do not regard the PKK as a terrorist organization, and many had supported the peace talks between the PKK and the Turkish government that had led to a de facto ceasefire since 2013; but as NATO operates by consensus, the brief statement after yesterday’s meeting made no reference to these differences of opinion, so seeming to endorse Turkey’s actions.

One reason for this careful treatment is relief within NATO that Turkey has finally decided to confront the Islamic State. Turkey has the second largest army of any NATO member after the United States, and its engagement against the group is crucial to the success of any military campaign to defeat it. Until recently, Turkey has seen the Islamic State more in terms of its potential to weaken the Assad regime and to limit Kurdish aspirations to form an autonomous region in northern Syria than as a threat to Turkey’s own security. But with the Islamic State and the Syrian government forces largely leaving each other alone—and with the Kurds receiving significant support from the U.S. as the most effective force engaged against the group—it hardly needed the Suruç bombing to raise questions in Ankara about the effectiveness of this policy. Turkey is now prepared to take action against the Islamic State and accede to the long-standing U.S. request to fly sorties from the Incirlik airbase, so long as it can continue to have free rein against the Kurds.

A further objective of Turkish policy is to gain support for the ‘safe zone’ that Turkey has long wished to establish across its southern border in an area currently under Islamic State control. Turkey has several objectives here: first, to create an area protected by the coalition that would prevent the Kurds from linking territory under their control in the east of the country with their enclaves in the west; second, to allow Turkey to resettle some of the 1.7 million Syrian refugees in the country back across the border and make them an international responsibility; and third, to draw its coalition partners into a direct challenge to the authority and sovereignty of the Assad regime. The impact on the Islamic State would be less clear. The U.S. insists that there is no agreement on a no-fly zone, but it seems an agreement is close to creating an ‘Islamic State-free zone’, which may come to mean much the same thing.

The change in the Turkish approach to the Islamic State in fact predates the Suruç attack; the group had already launched a blistering verbal attack on the Turkish government in the second edition of its Turkish language online magazine Konstantiniyye, which came out in mid-July. In a complicated blame game, the Islamic State claimed the Turkish government was supporting the PKK against the group, while at the same time the PKK claimed Turkey was in league with the Islamic State against the Syrian Kurds. By contrast, it was only in early June that the first issue of Konstantiniyye had appeared to carefully avoid any direct criticism of Turkey in implicit recognition that the Islamic State and Turkey had largely agreed to leave each other alone.

It remains to be seen how far Turkey will go in attacking the Islamic State in addition to the Kurds. The hundreds of arrests in Turkey that have followed the Suruç bombing have mainly targeted Kurds, including supporters of the Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), an umbrella group of pro-Kurdish political parties that secured 80 seats in the June elections. Yesterday, during his visit to China, President Erdogan called for the lifting of the immunity of these MPs so that they could be prosecuted for their links with "terrorist groups."

However, Turkey recognizes that in order to ensure that the U.S. keeps out of its fight against the Kurds, it will have to show that it can do as good or better a job than the Kurdish militia have done against the Islamic State. This will mean more than opening up Incirlik to U.S. manned or unmanned flights; it will also require active support for the vetted forces trained by the U.S. to fight the Islamic State, albeit that their numbers remain insignificant.

The extent and net result of the new Turkish policy remains to be seen. By some estimates, there are up to 2,000 Turks fighting with the Islamic State, and no doubt many more sympathizers still in Turkey; it will likely remain relatively easy for both groups to cross the border. However, the impact of tighter border controls will have a significant impact on the flow of foreigners going into Syria, as well as on the provision of supplies. Insofar as Turkey was complicit in allowing the Islamic State to move men and materiel across the border—or decided to turn a blind eye—blocking crossing points and rolling up the support networks in Turkey could have a major effect. It could also result in more terrorist attacks.


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