By Manish Rai
Recent bombings in Ankara brought Turkey’s political and ethnic tensions, exacerbated by the civil war in neighbouring Syria, to a grim new level. Some analysts are now fearing that Turkey has become the battleground in a growing war between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK and Islamic State. The attacks in Ankara, the Turkish capital, came as US allied Kurdish forces affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, were preparing to advance toward Islamic State’s self-declared capital of Raqqa in Syria. This is not the first time Turkey witnessed the battle of Kurds and Islamic State on its soil. Ankara attacks follow a July 20 bombing in the town of Suruc that was linked to Syria’s civil war and blamed on a suicide bomber with ties to Islamic State. The attacks come as Turkey is at risk of losing control of stretches of its border areas that have become highways for IS recruits from North Africa and Europe. The flow of jihadists and supplies allows ISIS to pursue its barbaric effort to build and protect a new state on the territory of Turkey’s neighbors. But by attacking pro-Kurdish rally in the capital IS has demonstrated that it can reach to Turkish heartlands.
The Kurds have been unhappy with how they have been treated as a minority for years by Turkish authorities. Now, their powerful military arm, the PKK, high on morale because of battlefield success in Syria is taking on Turkey in Kurdish dominated areas of Turkey. Turkey fears advances by Kurdish YPG militia, backed by its political wing, on the Syrian side of its 900 kms border will fuel separatist ambitions among Kurds in its own southeastern territories. But Washington has supported YPG fighters as an effective force in combating Islamic State. Ankara realizes the danger of empowering the Kurdish militia and it has taken stern action against them as well. It has carried out air strikes against Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels based in the mountains of northern Iraq; but attacks on Kurds in Syria would be far riskier, bringing Ankara into possible conflict both with US and Russian air forces. Even on the home front situation is not calm as well for Turkey. Turks furious that the government has done little to halt the spread of ISIS and jihadist activities that are becoming an increasing threat to civil order, the government is facing a multi-pronged challenge that it may find difficult to handle. Turkey, which from the outset of the Syrian war more than four years ago backed rebel groups in the belief that Mr. Assad could be quickly toppled, finds itself powerless to shape events in Syria which are affecting its internal stability.
Now with the entry of Russia in Syria in support of President Bashar-Al-Assad has further complicated matters for Turkey. For the past three years, Ankara has been demanding a safe zone in northern Syria where Turkish-backed opposition forces can regroup, as well as a no-fly zone to protect them from Assad. The apparent goal behind this plan was to allow the West’s and Turkey’s Syrian favorites to conquer Aleppo (Syria’s largest city and once industrial hub) and eventually take Damascus as well. Russia’s latest maneuver, however, has rendered such schemes completely impractical. Its deployment of surface-to-air missiles and air-to-air combat fighters is an obvious warning to Turkey. Unlike the air force-less Islamic State and Syrian opposition, Turkey has, in the past, downed a Syrian fighter jet and Syrian helicopters. Turkey’s inaction following incursions by Russian fighter jets into its airspace must be judged in this light. Russia’s bombing raids in Syria in support of its ally Assad, which threaten to debilitate the moderate rebels and boost the extremists in Syria’s civil war, while leaving Turkey to deal with two unruly neighbors: Assad and Islamic State. Because of now conflicting interest in Syria Turkey and Russia economic ties are also deteriorating. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said that Turkey could re-evaluate its cooperation with the Kremlin on a number of key energy projects.
Turkey has legitimate interests in its immediate neighborhood but it had to re-evaluate its strategy towards Syrian conflict. It has to realize that its policy of allowing rebel fighters, arms shipments and refugees to pass through its territory has been exploited by Islamic State to expand their network. Moreover, Turkish-backed rebels in Syrian arena are not game changers now and fighters like the Kurds and IS who have grudges against Turkey as well are now significant players in Syrian war. So now Turkey should consider its own internal security and stability as its prime goal rather than promoting its political agenda in Syria. In regard to that: Turkey should keep strict vigilance over its border with Syria and crack down on Islamic State and its sleeper cells in Turkish territory.
Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround (VA) can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)