In the last year, Turkey has been a main stopping point for Islamist extremists attempting to cross into Syria to fight the Bashar al-Assad regime. The country’s porous border with Syria has allowed these militants to cross into the country undetected. This has undoubtedly lead to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Over the past month, ISIS has threatened to take over Kobani, a Syrian Kurdish city that sits on the border between Syria and Turkey. Now, as the terror sits on its doorstep, Turkey clearly bears the responsibility to support the Kurds as they attempt to fight off ISIS.
Until last week, the Turkish government prevented non-Syrian Kurds hoping to help their brethren fend off advances by ISIS from crossing its border with Kobani. One likely reason for this Turkish strategy is its long, tumultuous relationship with the Kurds. For almost 20 years, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) fought an armed resistance against the Turkish government in Turkish Kurdistan in an effort for Kurdish self-determination. In 2013, a ceasefire brought the fighting to an end, but tensions remain high.
The United States and Turkey have strengthened their partnership in combating terrorist groups in recent years. As the PKK has involved itself in activities such as suicide bombings and drug trafficking, both countries have deemed it a terrorist organization.
This is where the Kobani situation gets tricky. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, governs the city and, in the eyes of Turkish government officials, is one and the same as the PKK. The way Turkey sees it, two terrorist organizations are fighting each other in Kobani and there is no reason to intervene. The Turkish government, while abhorring terrorism, is most interested in toppling the Assad regime, which it sees as enemy number one in the Syrian conflict.
This time, according to US officials, the lack of intervention may not prove fateful. Yet it is crucial that the Turkish government temporarily set aside their differences with the Kurds to ensure the region does not become even more unstable. With that in mind, the Turks must recognize that toppling Assad before ISIS will allow the terrorist group to continue pursuing its agenda and will only further destabilize Syria and the rest of the Middle East.
As ISIS is currently the biggest thorn in the side of Western nations and one of the hottest topics of American foreign policy, Turkey should appease their most powerful ally and support the PYD in their fight against ISIS. If it does not, Turkey could soon find its border inhabited by ISIS-friendly residents and face further backlash domestically from the millions of Kurds who reside in Turkey. This month, activists across the country took to the streets to protest the government’s inaction in Kobani. At least 12 people were killed.
Last week, in a twist of fate, Turkey showed preliminary signs of cooperation by opening its border to Kurdish fighters, known as Peshmerga, to support those in Kobani. However, this is more likely to appease the international community, which has become increasingly critical of the Turkish government, than to actually support the continually oppressed Kurds.
“It has been [Turkish] policy to sort of undermine Kurdish separatist groups in Syria,” Diplomacy and World Affairs professor Hussein Banai said. “I think their decision to hold back Kurdish fighters from Turkey was to make sure [the Kurds] were sufficiently weakened, so once they finally did go in, they could get ISIS out while not posing a threat to Turkish interests. I think they immediately realized their policy was becoming increasingly isolated and viewed as presiding over an ethnic cleansing without doing much.”
At the same time, it is difficult to be entirely critical of Turkey’s policy toward the Kurds. It has been one of the largest recipients of refugees, many of whom are Kurdish, from the Syrian civil war. Over 200,000 Kobani residents alone have arrived in Turkey since first signs of the ISIS siege were shown and more than 1,000,000 Syrians overall have found refuge in the country.
Still, many in Kobani believe the Turkish government is in bed with ISIS, according to a recent article in Newsweek. Opponents of Turkey cite examples of Turkish troops firing on aid workers attempting to help the Kurds and the previously mentioned relaxation of Turkish border patrol to allow foreign fighters into Syria to fight for ISIS, which they believe is to partially help weaken Kurdish military.
“They’ve already taken in all these refugees and they want to draw the line somewhere so that their own internal politics don’t get more complicated; for example, what if the Kurds look to Turkey after they defeat ISIS and say let’s use this opportunity to declare an autonomous region?” Banai said. “There’s never a single logic driving [any policy]; it’s always a multiplicity of factors that are often contradictory.”
At the end of the day, Turkey is looking out for itself. With one of the most complex global crises at its doorstep, the country is doing its best to ensure its own interests while still appearing to be compassionate to those who are suffering most. However, Turkey must recognize the danger that passivity on the situation brings to the Middle East and the international community as a whole. With every day that passes, this task will become more difficult.