Turkey finally joins the ISIS fight. Should we be worried?

After trying to straddle the fence, Turkey has suddenly given in to U.S. bidding and thrown itself into the fray against ISIS. But there may be a price to pay, Brian Stewart writes, as Ankara wants to settle scores with its Kurdish enemies at the same time.

NATO happy that Turkey is joining the Syria fray, but cautions Ankara about taking on the Kurds

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan has long been an opponent of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, but until recently had limited Turkey's involvement in the civil war across its border in Syria. (Harun Ukar / Reuters)

Such is the total-war jumble of the conflicts in both Iraq and Syria that the sudden entry of Turkey into the action can be seen as both a positive development as well as yet another spiral into even more destruction.

Still, to those desperate for any sign of hope after years of war and state collapse in that part of the Middle East, Turkey's arrival as a serious combatant suggests Syria's Assad regime is clearly tottering --- the dictator for the first time is even admitting weakness in maintaining his army --- and might soon give way before a grand bargain of many countries and interests in an anti-ISIS front.

That may yet be too rosy a hope, but events over the past week have given a jolt of much-needed optimism to the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition.

A key frustration of coalition commanders has been Turkey's unwillingness over the past year to support the campaign. That's now changed with a speed that took almost everybody by surprise.

First, the powerful Turkish air force has started pounding ISIS positions in neighbouring Syria and northern Iraq.

Even better, as Western commanders see it, Turkey has agreed on a new pact with Washington to offer allied air units access to the large Incirlic and Diyarbakir airbases in southern Turkey.

That is a major breakthrough and should solve the air campaign's greatest weakness: distance.

Use of these bases will cut hundreds of kilometres of flying time that allied fighter bombers currently face from bases in the Gulf area.

The closer targets allow for many more raids — and more "loiter time" over ISIS areas, which will limit guerrilla movement. Strikes by armed drones will also escalate sharply.

Buffer zone

This Ankara-Washington agreement is also believed to create a "safe haven" stretching about 100 kilometres along the Syrian side of the border, a safe zone in which Syrian refugees can gather, protected by near constant air cover and by future as yet unnamed forces opposed to both ISIS and the Assad regime.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the creation of such a zone would pave the way for the return of nearly two million Syrian refugees, a near impossible burden on his country.

But if such a zone can be enforced, and details are sketchy, Turkey also gains by creating a buffer to keep unwanted militants away from its borders. And the coalition benefits as a lengthy protected area would likely shut the main recruitment route ISIS has used to bring much needed foreign volunteers and supplies into its ranks in Syria and Iraq.

For months, Turkey faced criticism for the ease with which thousands of foreign youth have flown into Istanbul and then travelled overland to ISIS entry points along Turkey's southern border.

It took an ISIS suicide bombing, which killed 32 people within Turkey earlier this month, and the resulting internal violence for Ankara to finally drop its blind-eye approach.

Troops have now been moved to seal the border, while security forces have also arrested over 1,000 suspected ISIS sympathizers as well as those Kurds who support the left-wing separatist PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), long an Erdogan foe.

Attacking Kurds

Including the Kurdish PKK in both the arrests and the bombing of its militant bases in northern Iraq, though, is where the story gets complicated.

Turkey is making it clear to its NATO and Western allies that it is not about to target only ISIS.

In fact, it is using Western pleasure over its new involvement in the ISIS campaign to leverage allied acceptance of a wider clampdown on other groups Turkey views as terrorist, notably militant Kurds.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, shown here earlier this week speaking to a group in Damascus when he said the Syrian army had been forced to give up areas because of a manpower shortage. (Reuters)

Turkey sees little distinction between PKK fighters and ISIS, and if anything views the PKK, which has waged an on-and-off insurgency in Turkey since 1984 as potentially the more dangerous guerrilla faction.

That's because it tries to stoke separatist emotions among Turkey's large Kurdish population, as it allegedly did earlier this week with scattered attacks on a policeman and a military unit within Turkey.  

The Turkish government stresses that its attacks on the PKK are not aimed at other Kurdish factions, such as the one currently fighting Assad in Syria, or the Peshmerga Kurds in northern Iraq, which are supported by Canadian army advisers.

Still, other Kurdish groups are understandablely uneasy over Erdogan's real designs.

And while some allies, such as the U.S. and Canada seem sympathetic to the Turkish position, as both countries have in the past castigated the PKK for being a terrorist organization, other European allies are clearly more worried that Turkey's often fragile domestic peace could shatter, with catastrophic results for the region.

That's why even though Turkey's 27 NATO allies offered full political support at an alliance emergency meeting yesterday, some members, including Germany, are publically urging Ankara to cool the atmosphere by re-establishing peace with all Kurdish groups.

Shifting fortunes

Turkey's long reluctance to be drawn into the ISIS conflict is understandable in that it faces serious risks.

Counterterrorism experts expect ISIS, and likely PKK as well, will retaliate inside Turkey by attacking so-called soft targets, perhaps including its soaring tourist sector, which makes up 12 per cent of national GDP.

That presents a profoundly dangerous scenario within a Turkey that is already tense, having just completed a national election that resulted in a stinging rebuke to Erdogan's long-ruling AK Party.

Given the current stakes, and the prospect of another election not far off, Erdogan can be probably expected to display an iron fist against both his foreign and domestic enemies.

But the prospect of this conflict spreading to Turkey is NATO's worst case scenario, as NATO partnership allows Ankara to call for increasing levels of support, even on the ground, if the threat seems severe enough.

Hopefully, Turkey can manage this period. It does have one of the largest, best trained armies in the region.

If it can't, today's hope of bold new gains in the fight against ISIS will be sorely tested. 


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.


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