August 11, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Turkey Under Attack
Turkey’s simultaneous confrontation with the Kurds and the so-called Islamic State came to something of a head yesterday, with a spate of attacks in Istanbul and southern Turkey that carried on into the evening. The attacks in the south against police and soldiers were blamed on the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been as quick as the Turkish government to end the ceasefire reached in 2013 and resume hostilities following the bomb attack on a group of pro-Kurdish students in Suruç on July 20.
In Istanbul, the attacks on the U.S. Consulate and a police station appear to have been carried out by left-wing groups—one well-established and responsible for an attack against the U.S. Embassy in Ankara in 2013, and the other newer and apparently also responsible for an attack on the offices of a pro-Islamic State magazine in Istanbul in March. As an illustration of the mixture of confusion and conspiracy theory that has overcome public political debate in Turkey since the June 7 elections, one of the Consulate bombers is reported to have said that the attack was to avenge the Suruç bombing, which is generally ascribed to the Islamic State—though the group has not claimed responsibility.
Also on Monday, the caretaker Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, held an additional four hours of talks with the chairman of the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), to explore the possibility of a coalition government. They agreed to meet again later in the week, but the chance of agreement remains slim. If no new government emerges by August 23, there will be new elections.
Before then, it is likely that the Turks will make a move to establish the Islamic State-free-zone in northern Syria, as agreed with the United States in late July. In anticipation of such a move, Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, issued a statement on Sunday that it would withdraw from its positions on the front line against the Islamic State north of Aleppo. The statement explained that the group believed it wrong to support, coordinate with, or seek help from the joint Turkish and allied forces campaign in northern Syria, which it referred to purely in terms of Turkish national security concerns about the PKK.
Without criticizing Turkey, the statement went on to regret that the initiative came at a time when the Syrian Army was in retreat and the rebels were threatening the regime’s strongholds on the Syrian coast. It made a plea to all parties, both internal and external, to consider where the priorities of the struggle lay. As for the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra argued that if the rebels were to combine forces, they could defeat the Islamic State without needing any outside help.
The Jabhat al-Nusra statement made no reference to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which control the Syrian border to the east of the Euphrates and form the front line on the other side of the area held by the Islamic State. There is no love lost between the Syrian Arab rebels and the Syrian Kurds, especially as the YPG is commonly regarded to be in league with the regime, as well as advocating a system of government that is very far removed from the Islamist-Salafi vision of the extremist groups. But again, it is a question of priorities, and it is highly likely that Jabhat al-Nusra, like many other rebel groups, does not see the YPG as having any sustainable influence outside the majority-Kurdish areas that it already controls. While the YPG might be able to push some Arabs and Turkmen out of villages close to Kurdish enclaves, its ambition is strictly limited to consolidating the autonomy of ‘Rojava’—or Western Kurdistan—the state along the Turkish border that its political wing proclaimed in November 2013.
As Syria descends into a patchwork of statelets—each one with disputed borders but a stronger core—the future shape of the region may begin to emerge. One thing is for sure, however: although Turkey has established good and close relations with the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, it will not accept a similar area in Syria, especially if it falls under the control of the YPG, which, like its close affiliate the PKK, seeks greater independence for all Kurds. There are around 30 million Kurds in the region, of which almost half are in Turkey. Any suggestion that they too might achieve a measure of self-governance would go against everything that President Erdogan has worked for since his Justice and Development Party came to power in Turkey in 2002.
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