Turkey's Shift on ISIS: Reasons and Implications

Turkey's decision last week to confront the ISIS menace came directly after an attack by a Turkish suicide bomber linked to the radical organization at Suruc near the Syrian border on July 20 which claimed 32 victims and the killing of a Turkish soldier at a nearby checkpoint three days later. On July 24 Turkey confirmed that it would allow the United States and other allies to use Incirlik in southern Turkey and other bases to carry out bombing operations against ISIS targets in Syria. Ankara had previously rejected numerous requests by Washington for such access by insisting on a prior agreement on what it termed an integrated policy focused on ousting the Assad regime.

The shift followed prolonged negotiations between the two countries which had moved towards conclusion during a visit by a senior U.S. delegation on July 7 and was sealed in a phone conversation between President Obama and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 22. Through its reversal, Ankara is clearly hoping to solidify its alliance with Washington which has been steadily undercut by not only its unwillingness to make Incirlik available but also by charges –including for the first time by President Obama on June 8 at the G7 Summit in Germany– that Turkey was failing to do as much as it could in the fight against ISIS, especially in preventing the flow of foreign fighters into Syria through its territory. Turkey underlined the major change in its stance by bombing a number of ISIS sites across the border on July 24 and then rounding up hundreds of Turkish and foreign ISIS members and sympathizers in raids throughout the country.

It remains to be seen how much of an impact Turkey’s new policy, and in particular its provision of access to Incirlik, which is much closer to ISIS targets than bases currently being used, will have on the performance of the US-led coalition effort when it is implemented. It is clear that the campaign has not succeeded in its stated mission to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS. This goal will now also depend on the scope and extent of the belated adjustment of Turkish policy. Having long failed to take the ISIS threat as seriously as its Western allies wanted, there are legitimate questions over whether Turkey will follow through by cooperating fully in an effort to entirely eliminate the ISIS threat. In this context, it is noteworthy that Erdogan cautioned on July 24 that the use of Incirlik by the United States would be “within a certain framework.” There is also the related question of what Turkey intends to do about other radical groups like Al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham which are active in Syria and targeted by the United States.

The fact that the Turkish change on ISIS was accompanied by a renewal of sustained airstrikes against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq for the first time in three years makes it apparent that Turkey's priority is the fight against the PKK rather than ISIS even though Turkish leaders have now identified them as equal threats. The Turkish bombing in Iraq further complicates the already difficult situation in that country and raises serious doubts about the future of the implicit alliance between the U.S.-led coalition and Kurdish militias –particularly the PYD in Syria which is tied to the PKK and as such perceived as a threat by Turkey immediately beyond its southern border– in the struggle against ISIS. At the same time, the bombing of PKK targets effectively ends the peace process designed to end long-standing Turkish-Kurdish tensions within Turkey and threatens to usher in the kind of violence in the Kurdish southeast not seen since the 1990's.

Although Obama essentially chose to ignore it as he negotiated with Erdogan, the shift in Turkish policy in coordination with the United States came against a backdrop of domestic political turmoil. Turkey has been in post-election limbo since the June 7 elections which denied the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a parliamentary majority. In the absence of an agreement on a coalition government, decisions are being made by Erdogan and, to a lesser extent, the caretaker government led by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Erdogan's opponents, especially the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which has been constantly vilified by Erdogan and the AKP for months for its alleged association with the PKK, have been raising questions about whether the shift last week was designed to create the right kind of political environment to allow the AKP to regain sole power in early elections in November.

Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program