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According to The New York Times,
Turkey plunged into the fight against the Islamic State on Thursday, rushing forces into the first direct combat with its militants on the Syrian border and granting permission for American warplanes to use two Turkish air bases for bombarding the group in Syria. …
Turkey, a vital conduit for the Islamic State’s power base in Syria, had come under increased criticism for its inability — or unwillingness — to halt the flow of foreign fighters and supplies across its 500-mile border.
Up to now, Turkey has placed a priority on dealing with its own restive Kurdish population, which straddles the Syrian border in the southeast, and in the toppling of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, whom the Turks blame for creating the conditions in his war-ravaged country for the rise of Islamic extremism.
But now that extremism has increasingly menaced Turkey, where 1.5 million Syrian war refugees have also been straining the country. A series of Islamic State attacks on Turks, including a devastating suicide bombing a few days ago that officials have linked to the extremist group, may also have helped accelerate the shift in Turkey’s position.
Turkish internal security officials had signaled their growing concern about the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, with a series of large-scale raids in the past few weeks, detaining hundreds of suspected ISIS members and sympathizers. Taking the fight to the Islamic State in Syria, however, represents a huge leap. …
The agreement was described by one senior administration official as a “game changer.”
I’d advise treating these reports with a high level of skepticism. The Turkish press is highly controlled and censored, and social media sites have been blocked. So it’s not easy to figure out what, in fact, is happening there from abroad, especially since we have few knowledgable Western foreign correspondents left over there: Even The Wall Street Journal recently shut its Istanbul bureau. On our side, our sources seem to be government figures who refuse to go on the record, which isn’t much of an improvement.
As background, here’s a piece I wrote for The American Interest about Turkey’s last elections: Erdogan Isn’t Finished: The game isn’t over for Erdoğan and the AKP. Now would be a good time for the West to pay attention to what’s going on in Turkey.
… Should any outside party, including the American one, wish to be useful, it must start by grasping the fragility of Turkey’s post-election condition. The AKP must now preside over the forming of a coalition, forge on as a minority government, or call a new, snap election. This means at least three months of intense political turbulence in Turkey, during which everything can go wrong. Anyone remotely rational should expect it to. Everything that goes wrong will work to Erdoğan’s advantage. A failure to form a coalition, or the formation of a government unable quickly to prove its ability to manage things with reasonable competence, will result in a new round of elections—a “re-run”, as Erdoğan terms it—and in this new round he may well get what he wants. Then the game will be over. …
… Now consider, on the basis of this sketch, what’s about to happen to Turkey. A minority government is formed when no party has a parliamentary majority. The magic number for a majority is 276. Turkey’s 63rd government must be formed within 45 days of the formal issuance of a mandate; failing that, snap elections ensue. No party can form a government on its own, and Turkish law prohibits the formation of pre-election party alliances, making it particularly difficult for parties quickly to negotiate a post-election coalition. …
… There is just no natural coalition here. The key point is that those willing to take steps that might satisfy the aspirations of Turkey’s Kurds don’t necessarily support a secular state. Those who want above all the preservation of secularism tend to be a peculiar and uniquely Turkish admixture of hyper-nationalist and anti-imperialist leftists. (No, that’s not ideologically coherent; but it’s real nonetheless.) They do not support the kinds of concessions to the Kurds that the AKP might be willing to make. …
Both the CHP and MHP are negotiating from a position of weakness. The CHP, especially, would find itself sharing power with a party loathed by its supporters, yet would be highly unlikely to be able to deliver on its promises. It might strike both parties as astute to remain in opposition to a weakened incumbent, then try to benefit from this in the next elections.
But they won’t benefit, for it will only take a few good, and perhaps deliberately administered shocks [my emphasis]—economic or to Turkey’s security—to send voters running for stability. When they do, given that most of the recent swing vote came from the AKP, that’s where they’ll go back. All the AKP has to achieve in a snap election is a slightly better result: That 10 percent barrier to entering parliament ensures that a tiny shift in voter sentiment will result in a completely disproportionate reassignment in power. The AKP will then be in position to form a new government without coalition headaches.
Keep the idea of a “deliberately administered shock” in mind. Thinking in terms of such things is in America is the mark of a conspiracy theorist, failing to think that way in Turkey is the mark of an American naif.
On July 20, a bomb ripped through a gathering of young activists outside the Amara Culture Centre in the Suruç district of Şanlıurfa Province, killing 32 and wounding 104. The bombing targeted members of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP) Youth Wing, and the Socialist Youth Associations Federation (SGDF). Some 300 members of the SGDF had travelled from İstanbul to Suruç to participate in three-to-four days of rebuilding work in Kobanî. The explosion was caused by a cluster bomb detonated by a female, Kurdish suicide bomber.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack on the next day. It had allegedly made the decision to pursue active operations in Turkey just days before the attack. The perpetrator was identifed as Şeyh Abdurrahman Alagöz, a 20-year-old ISIS sympathiser from Adıyaman. Alagöz was later identified as a member from the ISIS-backed Dokumacılar militant organisation, which had fought against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) during the Tell Abyad offensive earlier in 2015. Other than an unplanned clash between ISIL militants and Turkish soldiers in March 2014, this was the first planned attack by ISIL on Turkish soil, though previous incidents such as the 2013 Reyhanlı bombings, the 2015 Istanbul suicide bombing and the 2015 Diyarbakır rally bombings have suggested ISIS involvement.
Suruç is on the Syrian-Turkish border, about 10 kilometers rom the Syrian town of Kobanî. The populations of both Suruç and Kobanî are mostly Kurds; this resulted in deadly riots in southeastern Turkey in October 2014 when Kobanî was under siege by ISIS. The riots were in protest of the Turkish government’s failure to intervene in Kobanî against ISIS. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed he was not prepared to launch operations against ISIS unless they also targetted Bashar Al Assad.
The Turkish government has long been dogged with allegations of covertly funding and arming ISIS. This came under particular scrutiny following the 2014 MİT trucks scandal, which the government took drastic measures to cover up. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused the prosecutor who ordered the search of being affiliated with Fetullah Gülen and his Cemaat Movement, and prevented the trucks in Hatay being prevented from being searched. The police allegedly recorded the cargo as “humanitarian aid,” but the Turkmens for whom it was designated claimed they had received no aid. The opposition CHP held that the trucks had been carrying weapons, and their claims appeared to be supported when on May 29 footage of the search was leaked, showing the trucks to have been carrying arms in their cargo.
The Suruç bombing shook all hell loose. While many of the victims were ethnically Turkish, it was perceived as an attack on ethnic Kurds, as well as on Alevis, who have long occupied the extreme-left space in Turkey. (The word “extreme” here means somthing much more extreme than it does in a US context.)
So Turkey’s peace-process with the Kurds looks to have broken down completeely. The country could now face a triangular confrontation against the Kurds and ISIS. Metin Gurcan, a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse, wrote one of the best analyses of the situation:
Analysis of Suruç attack
The target was a youth civil society association with high media visibility related to Kobani, which is a sensitive issue for Turkey. It is noteworthy that the attackers chose a civilian, leftist and pro-Kurdish activist group instead of a military facility or a state institution as it usually does in Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.
The timing of the attack was well-chosen. That the attack was carried out in a Turkish town instead of Kobani indicates the primary intended audience was public opinion in Turkey, especially that of the Kurds. The attack also coincided with a political crisis prevailing in Turkey in the aftermath of the June 7 elections.
That the attack most likely was a suicide operation is a signal of power and challenge. If you ask who the recipient of the message was intended to be, I — unlike many others — believe that it was not Turkey but the US-supported, Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). With this attack, IS was sending a message to the PYD and the PKK to watch their steps after their success at Tell Abyad, if they are now thinking of advancing toward Afrin in the west and Raqqa in the south with close US air support.
By moving the conflict in the opposite direction of Raqqa to Turkey, IS is trying to ease the pressure it is under at Raqqa and Azez in northern Syria.
I believe the perpetrator of the attack is a Kurdish-origin citizen of Turkey. Most of those who joined IS from Turkey are Kurdish-origin nationals. According to available intelligence reports, the pool of potential attackers IS has put together for attacks against Turkey is made up of Turkish Kurds. By selecting a Kurdish-origin suicide attacker, IS is sending the message that jihadi ideology is more powerful than ethnic nationalism.
It has to be emphasized that this attack by IS attempts to draw Turkey more into Syria while transferring clashes in Syria to Turkey.
The message of IS to Turkey, its secondary intended recipient after the PYD and the PKK, is, in short: “If you step up attacks against us, you will pay the price.” Turkey had indeed stepped up operations against IS inside Turkey over the last six months; that resulted in detentions of 450 people in several major cities. Border controls between Syria and Turkey were reinforced, resulting in the capture of about 300 IS militants who wanted to cross the border in both directions. Until now, about 15,000 foreign nationals were put on the blacklist banning their entry-exit through Turkish borders. About 1,500 foreigners were deported for their IS connections. Over the last six months, 1,100 people were refused entry to Turkey.
Another message to Turkey is that IS is aware of socio-cultural and political fault lines of Turkey that it can cross at any time.
The Suruç attack, immediately after a high-level US delegation’s visit to Turkey to discuss strategies against IS, also had a message for Washington. That message was that IS is an indigenous local player able to execute its will despite US efforts to mount a war of proxies — and that US efforts to embolden its anti-IS allies won’t work.
On Tuesday, a Turkish soldier was shot dead by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) a few hours after tbe Suruç bombing. The following day, two Turkish policemen were shot dead in their home near the Syrian border. The PKK promptly claimed responsibility, saying that the killings were in revenge for the Suruç attack, which it blames not just on ISIS but also on Turkey’s ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party.) It also claimed responsibility for the death of a suspected member of ISIS in Istanbul.
Most Kurdish radicals strongly believe the AKP supports ISIS, pointing at the relative official tolerance of ISIS over the last year compared to other terrorist groups. But the AKP has been cracking down quite hard on ISIS inside Turkey over the last few months. Some 51 suspected ISIS members were detained in raids across the country this month, and government sources claim more than 500 such detentions this year.
For the Kurds, news of the moves against ISIS has been overshadowed by uncompromising denunciations of them from government spokesmen led by President Erdogan, claiming that Kurdish fighters in Kobane are as dangerous as ISIL and that the HDP (Peoples Democracy Party), the pro-Kurdish party which claims to be attempting to transform itself into a nation-wide Turkish left-of-center movement, is linked with PKK violence and even – some suggest—with ISIS. ISIS for good measure has accused President Erdoğan of supporting the PKK.) We’re in serious crazyland — and the thing about Turkey is that some part of the crazy may very well be true. The lowest point was when AKP co-founder Bulent Arinc asked why there had been no HDP members of parliament around when the Suruç bomb exploded. The question was remarkably distasteful, given that an HDP MP lost his wife and son in the blast.
By contrast, speaking at their funeral on Wednesday, Selahattin Demirtaş went out of his way to try and relieve tensions, warning that ‘blood could not be washed away with blood’ and praying for the murdered policemen and their families who were also sons of the same fatherland. His attempts to call for calm when Turkey is in uproar are the more remarkable since the HDP faced a spate of attacks on its regional offices and election buses during the election, culminating in a bomb attack on its final rally on 5 June in which four people were killed.
Demirtaş is caught. The operational head of the PKK’s guerrillas, Cemil Bayık, wants to end the cease-fire. Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK’s leader, is kept held in isolation on the island prison at Imrali on the sea of Marmara and his views on Demirtaş, the HDP, and the ceasefire are not known. Demirtaş continues to call for the ceasefire to continue, but he admits that only Ocalan has the authority to call for this.
President Erdoğan also indicated earlier this month that his confidence in the peace process has waned. He now rejects the terms agreed at the end of 2014, and says the HDP is an extension of the PKK. This suggests the government believes making any further concessions to the Kurds would be politically fatal. It didn’t help when armed Alevi left-wing militants escorted the caskets of the Suruç victims in Istanbul — and the images circulated widely throughout Turkey.
A second general election this year is now likely. To regain the overall majority it lost in June, the AKP needs both to win back disgruntled conservatives among the ethnic Turks and stop the erosion of its votes in eastern Turkey among the non-PKK, often Islamist, Kurds in the south east who seem to have been mainly responsible for the surge in HDP votes in the June election. Ankara is also infuriated that the FYG (Peoples Defence Units) in the Kurdish-occupied portions of northern Syria have upstaged it as allies of the US against ISIL, hence the drive to discredit them.
The prospect of new elections is creating desperation among the political parties. Long-term considerations are being sacrificed to polemics. The PKK is an easy stick to beat. ISIS can feed off the tensions.
The CHP and HDP have joined forces and backed a motion for an emergency meeting of the Turkish parliament on 29 July. The AKP had said that there was no need to convene parliament. The National Assembly elected on 7 June has only met on a few occasions in the six and a half weeks since then to elect its officers.
Frederike Geerdink, the only Western correspondent in the primarily Kurdish city of Diyarbakır, Tweets that four Turkish F16 fighter jets bombed ISIS targets inside Syria during the night (local time). Casualties on ISIS side are not yet known. “It must be first time citizens here support planes going on bombing missions,” she writes. (Usually, they are on mission to bomb PKK redoubts.)
At the beginning of the month, shortly after the election, Turkey was rife with rumors that Erdogan planned to go into Syria to bolster his standing in advance of new elections:
Turkish newspapers have carried reports Erdogan is considering military intervention in Syria, in a bid to stop gains secured by Kurdish fighters against Takfiri group ISIL (so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Levant).
“Even before a government has been established, the drums of war are being beaten for vested interests. War is not a child’s game nor a vehicle to renew one’s image,” [main opposition party, known as the CHP, Kemal] Kilicdaroglu wrote on his official Twitter account.
“A good politician knows that feeding off chaos and war will bring disaster instead of success. This country is not a plaything for your ambition,” he said.
The army was reportedly reluctant to go in, particularly given that no government had been formed:
Turkey’s government wants more active military action to support the Free Syrian Army (FSA) against the regime, Kurdish and jihadist forces in Syrian territory, but the military is reluctant to do so, playing for time as the country heads for a new coalition government, official sources told the Hürriyet Daily News. ….
The military does not want to get into a major military action on the directives of the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government which lost its parliamentary majority in the June 7 elections. The coalition talks to form a new government with either the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) or the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) will start next week and if a new government is formed in weeks’ time, the directive which might lead to a war could be obsolete. It is a fact that if the CHP becomes a coalition partner, which is more likely, that Turkey’s policy on Syria and ISIL could change.
There is also the factor of a reshuffle among military ranks. The office of Özel ends in August and civilian sources speculate that he is playing with time in order not to become the general that takes Turkey into war at a critical time.
So it is very, very hard to know what’s going on. The Turkish media has gone into pure martial propaganda mode; the White House isn’t confirming anything; and it may very well be that this is meant to show both American and Turkish politicians that we’re “doing something” against ISIS, but there may not be much to it.. It may even be designed to ensure that Erdogan is elected with majorities sufficient to enable him to push through his plan for an enhanced presidency.
Let’s hope that this really does entail a “game changer” against ISIS, but let’s not believe that absent further evidence.