Turkey at War?
Since the start of the conflict in Syria — indeed since the start of the Arab revolutions — Turkish and foreign observers have focused on the collapse of the regional order and its implications for Turkish security. For the most part, these analyses have assumed that Turkey could hold direct security threats at arms-length, while continuing to pursue an active — and sometimes less than transparent — strategy on its eastern and southern borders. Recent events have made clear that these assumptions were unfounded. As the dramatic suicide bombing in Suruç on July 20 confirmed, Turkey is increasingly exposed to the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) and ISIS-inspired attacks on its own territory. At the same time, the collapse of the Kurdish peace process and the renewed battle with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and other violent groups with grievances against the Turkish state illustrates the extent to which Turkey’s internal scene remains troubled and insecure. These external and domestic challenges are likely to have significant consequences for Ankara’s key security partners in the West. In particular, the dramatic change in the character of U.S.-Turkish cooperation on Syria, including the use of Incirlik Air Base for offensive air operations for the first time in over 20 years, raises some critical open questions for all sides.
External Threats, Domestic Insecurity
In many respects, it is surprising that Turkey has managed to hold the threat of ISIS attacks inside Turkey at arms-length for so long. Several possible explanations can be offered for this apparent immunity, despite the battles raging just across the border in Syria and Iraq, and despite the substantial flow of foreign fighters from Europe and elsewhere destined for these theaters. First, the Justice and Development Party (AKParty) government’s political support for Islamist movements across the Middle East since the start of the Arab revolutions has given Islamist radicals little cause for animosity toward Ankara. Second, as a practical matter, ISIS and its recruiters would have had little reason to spur a tougher Turkish approach to the flow of foreign fighters across Turkey’s permeable borders. Third, and much more difficult to assess, is the possibility that some sort of tacit understanding was in place, perhaps dating to the release of Turkish diplomats and other hostages held in ISIS-controlled territory. Fourth, it is possible that the ISIS-related threat in Turkey was always greater than it appeared, even in the absence of dramatic terrorist incidents. Turkey itself has been a source of recruitment for ISIS, together with Muslim communities across Europe.
The number of arrests in the wake of the Suruç bombing suggests the potential extent of support for ISIS among disaffected and radicalized individuals inside Turkey. As Turkey becomes more deeply involved in the battle against ISIS, with its own forces, and via coalition access to Turkish bases, the risk of new terrorist attacks, whether in border areas or in the major cities of western Turkey, will surely grow. Here, Turkey will be fully in the European mainstream when it comes to facing the problems of radicalization and terrorism. It is worth recalling that Turkey has had long experience with the struggle against terrorism, from the radical left and right, from the PKK and related groups as well as from Islamic extremists. Counter-terrorism — for much of the 1990s closely linked to friction with Syria — has been the center of gravity for Turkish security strategy for most of the post-Cold War period (and arguably, even during the Cold War).
During the 1990s, Turkey was drawn into repeated cross-border interventions against the PKK in northern Iraq. On occasion, Ankara and Damascus came close to open conflict over Syria’s role as a safe haven for PKK militants. But on the whole, Turkey has been a cautious actor in the Middle East, and the Turkish military, in particular, has been wary of cross-border operations. Historically, the threshold for Turkish intervention has been high. That said, questions of Turkish territorial integrity and security inside Turkish territory are taken very seriously across the political spectrum. In this respect, the attack in Suruç and the resurgence of PKK attacks crossed an important psychological and policy line. In both the anti-ISIS and anti-PKK contexts, the distinction between external and internal security is necessarily unclear. Ankara now sees an opportunity to create a zone free of forces aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (Washington prefers to describe it as an ISIS-free zone) inside the border with Syria. This is an opening for Turkey to create a buffer zone, to roll-back ISIS from areas close to Turkey, but also to limit the freedom of action of PKK-affiliated Kurdish groups in Syria, and perhaps to help manage the steadily mounting problem of Syrian refugees entering Turkey. (As many as 2 million refugees have crossed into Turkey since the start of the Syrian conflict.) If Turkey now faces an extended problem of chaos and conflict on its borders, with Turks as targets, Turkish planners may well conclude that it is better to fight this battle on Syrian and Iraqi territory.
The Fire Next Time
Nationalism and religion are potent forces on the Turkish domestic scene. The June 7, 2015, elections made clear the strength of these forces, as well as the vigor of opposing tendencies, especially among disaffected Kurdish and secular voters. In the uncertain negotiations over possible coalition arrangements, and with the potential for new elections, the AKParty leadership — and others — will be strongly tempted to play the nationalist card. Elements of this approach are already apparent in moves to discredit HDP (the Peoples’ Democratic Party), tying its leadership to a failed Kurdish peace process and even to PKK terrorism per se. This could end in the outright closure of a party that has shaken up the political scene and deprived the AKParty of majority rule. In both political and security terms, Turkey could be headed for a return to the violent, confrontational atmosphere of Turkish-Kurdish relations in the 1990s. If so, there is a risk that the conflict will not be limited to southeastern Anatolia, but could affect major cities elsewhere in Turkey, and more troubling still, acquire a wider inter-communal character, pitting a younger generation of nationalist Turks against radicalized Kurds. With large Turkish and Kurdish communities spread across Europe, this friction may not be confined to Turkey. To be sure, Turkish-Kurdish relations have not yet acquired these dimensions, but continued escalation in the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state substantially increases the risk of this scenario.
Against this backdrop, a secondary series of security operations are unfolding, aimed at radical leftist groups such as the Revolutionary Peoples Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C). Turkish officials note that some 600 terrorist attacks of various kinds have occurred in Turkey since the June elections, with at least 52 deaths and hundreds injured. The effect of this rising atmosphere of internal insecurity on Turkey’s international connections, including investment and tourism, is unclear. But if terrorist attacks and violent confrontations increase, this will almost certainly have an isolating effect, just as Turkey’s once highly dynamic economy is beginning to show signs of real strain.
A convergence of perspectives on ISIS and counter-terrorism between Ankara and its NATO and EU partners should pay dividends in terms of practical cooperation on intelligence sharing, the foreign fighter challenge, and regional security. With regard to ISIS and the PKK, Turkey will seek reassurance from its NATO allies, and will regard solidarity on these threats as a key test of Alliance commitments. At the same time, NATO allies will be sensitive to the question of priorities in Turkey’s cross-border strategy. The PKK is widely regarded as a terrorist organization, but the fight against ISIS clearly is at the top of the agenda for the United States and European allies, and both Washington and Brussels remain attached to the idea of a political dialogue on the Kurdish issue. Both perspectives were on view in and around the extraordinary NATO “Article IV” meeting held on July 28 at Ankara’s request. In addition, the morale and competence of Kurdish forces confronting ISIS in the battle for Kobane and elsewhere has not been lost on Western observers, and the Kurds in general now enjoy a fair amount of international good will. The EU approach to this question, while supportive of Ankara, is likely to lean even further in the direction of a “proportionate” military response to the PKK threat and the need for a parallel political process.
Beyond the potential for friction with Europe over the Kurdish issue, an open-ended Turkish engagement in the conflicts raging in Syria and Iraq will likely place the question of Turkey-EU cooperation on foreign and security policy at the center of the broader debate on Turkey-EU relations. The pressure for coordination on this front, long caught up in Turkey’s troubled accession process, is acquiring overwhelming importance. Among other things, it could well influence the incentives and outlook for a Cyprus settlement — a source of perennial frustration but now showing real signs of movement.
The New Turn in Turkish Security Cooperation
Ankara’s agreement to the use of Incirlik and other Turkish bases for strikes against ISIS in Syria is valuable in the context of ongoing coalition operations. In terms of U.S.-Turkish strategic cooperation, it is a potentially revolutionary development. The recent differences between Washington and Ankara over access to Incirlik, and Syria policy more generally, are well known and have been extensively discussed. Less widely noted is the significance of the agreement in the context of several decades of friction over U.S. use of the base. U.S. forces have used Incirlik on many occasions for logistical and other purposes. But Ankara has not allowed the use of the base for significant offensive air operations since 1991, despite repeated requests by successive U.S. administrations, most notably in the context of the Iraq war in 2003 (Incirlik was the principal base for Operations Provide Comfort and Northern Watch in the years after the first Iraq war, but essentially to enforce a no-fly zone rather than for ground attack missions).
The agreement over Incirlik is a major step, and not without risks for a Turkish government facing steady pressure over sovereignty issues. Why did Ankara agree? The short answer is that Turkey appears to have gotten at least something of what it sought in terms of a de-facto buffer zone across the border, together with political reassurance from NATO allies. The longer, and perhaps more significant answer is that Turkey is preparing for the possibility of a very protracted, perhaps open-ended battle with Islamic extremists, the PKK, and in a more diffuse sense, chaos on its southern and eastern borders. The complex and durable nature of these challenges effectively precludes, or should preclude, a unilateral strategy. After years of ambivalence in strategic cooperation — and with the additional complication of a potential Western détente with Iran on the horizon — Ankara may finally have turned to a coalition approach with its key security guarantors.
Will this approach prove durable? Recent developments raise a series of open questions. Despite the current agreement, the longer-term (even the short term?) balance of strategic and operational priorities between Ankara and the anti-ISIS coalition remains unclear. If the Turkish commitment to the anti-ISIS campaign proves secondary to the campaign against the PKK, Ankara’s partners in the United States and Europe, and perhaps elsewhere, will complain. If coalition operations from Incirlik appear to depart from Turkish operational preferences, the political commitment to the use of the base, and the wider structure of cooperation with Western partners, may not hold. Much will likely depend on the ability to show some near-term success in rolling back ISIS, and in securing a security zone across the border. The effect on public and elite opinion of any new terrorist attacks in Turkey is hard to predict, but would surely be part of the equation. Above all, the commitment of Turkey and its transatlantic partners will be tested by engagement on this front measured in years rather than months. Given prevailing conditions in the region, this is a very real possibility.