Kurdish refugees fleeing to Turkey to escape the forces of Saddam Hussein in northern Iraq, 1 April 1991
In the wake of news that emerged at the end of October that Turkey has decided to allow small groups of Kurdish fighters from Iraq to pass through its territory in order to join the fight against ISIS, Turkey announced two weeks ago that it has come to an agreement with the Iraqi Kurds to provide training for their forces so that they can be better prepared to fight the Islamist extremist group.
Both of these announcements came as quite a surprise to many in the West, who have become increasingly used to the picture painted in the media of Turkey as a selfish, self-interested country reluctant to enter the fray against ISIS despite the path of death and destruction it has wreaked across much of the Levant.
Rather than a pleasant surprise, however, this announcement should be seen as part of a series of events that, in concert, have allowed Istanbul increasingly greater freedom to act against the Islamist extremist group in ways that it previously was reluctant to pursue.
Over the past several years, Turkey has had two primary security interests related to the conflict in Syria. The first is ensuring that the violence in Syria spills over as little as possible into Turkey itself. While the more than one million Syrian refugees that have flooded into Turkey since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 certainly have kept the Turkish public aware of the ongoing problem to its south, it wasn’t until ISIS’ blitzkrieg-like southward sweep this summer, resulting in the seizure of 24 diplomats and their children from the Turkish consulate in Mosul along with several dozen other Turkish citizens, that the effects of the war truly hit home for Turkey. With close to 50 of its citizens — including the country’s consul-general in Mosul — in ISIS’ hands, one could make a fairly convincing argument that Turkey’s hands were tied.
They have become increasingly untied, however, as this tense situation has slowly been resolved. About half of the Turks being held by ISIS — the civilians, rather than the diplomats — were released the following month. The other half were held until September, when a “secret” Turkish operation — whose details remain unclear, besides the fact that they involved negotiation rather than the application of force — freed the remaining hostages and repatriated them to Turkey.
The second security imperative of Turkey that I wish to discuss is related to the conflict in Syria, but in a slightly more tangential fashion. Turkey, not without cause, likely sees the Syrian Civil War and the spillover it has caused in Iraq as potentially leading to a vacuum in which Kurds from three countries in the region — Turkey, Syria, and Iraq — may emerge with a greater sense of solidarity and renewed desire to call for their own state on the territory upon which they reside. As we have seen so far, however, events have not played out in this fashion, as Syrian and Iraqi Kurds appear committed to fighting against ISIS and have made few moves or statements indicating that they might soon attempt to pursue independence. This fact seems to have soothed Turkish nerves somewhat with regards to its fear that its own Kurdish minority could be incited by events occurring further south. It has also served as a partial explanation for why Turkey has been increasingly willing to work with the Kurds in Syria and Iraq against ISIS.
As fate would have it, however, these two interests — preventing the spillover of violence into Turkey, while at the same time keeping its own Kurdish minority under lock and key — have come to a head recently in the previously obscure, northern Syrian town of Kobane.
If ISIS manages to win the battle against the Kurds and take full control over the town, the group would acquire a significant base of operations less than a few hundred meters away from the Turkish border. This would be close enough to dig tunnels, lob missiles, and generally act in ways that would threaten Turkey. At the moment, ISIS and Turkey seem to have somewhat of a tacit understanding—evidenced by the fact that Turkey has refused to join the international coalition against the extremist group on the one hand, and on the other by ISIS’ willingness to return its Turkish hostages. However, Turkey knows well that circumstances in wars can shift quickly, especially when you are dealing with an extremist group like ISIS.
It is this dynamic — in combination with Turkey’s calculation that an ISIS base on its southern border would be far more detrimental to its interests than a Kurdish one — that has led Turkey to support the Kurds against ISIS in increasingly visible ways. It remains to be seen, however, whether this working relationship that Turkey has established with the Kurds will translate into a more friendly and cooperative relationship with the U.S. and other members of the international coalition against ISIS.