Turkey vs. Islamic State: What they risk as conflict escalates

Even as both sides escalate their rhetoric, many in Turkey see the Kurdish PKK as a bigger threat than the Islamic State.

Cagdas Erdogan/AP
Makeshift barricades fill the streets as left-wing protesters light a fire trying to avoid tear gas used by police to disperse them, in Istanbul, Sunday, during clashes between police and people protesting against Turkey's operation against Kurdish militants. Turkey has bombed Islamic State positions near the Turkish border in Syria, also targeting Kurdish rebels in Iraq and carried out widespread police operations against suspected Kurdish and IS militants and other outlawed groups inside Turkey.

The rapidly intensifying conflict between Turkey and the Islamic State – a confrontation both sides avoided while pursuing higher priority goals in Syria’s civil war – is quickly exposing their respective vulnerabilities.

For Ankara, getting involved in the US-led anti-IS coalition, allowing US warplanes to use the Incirlik air base, and carrying out its own airstrikes against IS targets not only marked a policy shift but carries unique risks given its porous borders with Iraq and Syria.

And for IS, which this month dramatically changed its rhetoric regarding Turkey to make thinly veiled threats, the conflict imperils a vital conduit for its foreign fighters and a fertile recruiting ground in the region.

“Now that it is pretty obvious that Turkey joined the United States to target IS, I think it is very likely that IS will retaliate,” says Soner Cagaptay, Turkish Research program director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).  “It has a pretty sophisticated network of recruits, safe havens, and smuggling routes, and it will use those routes to strike back at Turkey. These guys know Turkey in and out.”

But the escalating conflict is also highlighting a common Turkish concern that the country’s security is threatened less by IS jihadists than by militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which it considers a terrorist group. Among the hundreds of alleged terrorists rounded up in recent days, a majority are thought to be PKK sympathizers.

Turkey’s Syria policy long prioritized the removal of President Bashar al-Assad over the containment of radical Islamists, who were seen as instrumental to the demise of the former. At the same time, Ankara withheld support for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria who were battling IS, fearing that an autonomous Kurdish zone allied with Kurds in Turkey also represented a threat.

Magazine's changing tone

Taking advantage of Turkey’s controversial open door policy with Syria, IS sought to recruit support among Turks, including through the Turkish subtitling of its jihadist propaganda and the distribution of a new Turkish language magazine, Konstanniye.

In the same way that Ankara has taken off its gloves, IS has also hardened its stance against Turkey. The second issue of Konstanniye, released July 17, dramatically changes its tone, directly criticizing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkey for the first time.

“The difference between the first issue and the second issue was remarkable,” says Tomas Kavalek, an Istanbul-based scholar whose research focuses on IS.

The magazine’s first issue, released in May to coincide with the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul and the fall of the Byzantine Empire, included passages that suggested no fighting would be needed to take modern-day Istanbul.

The second issue, however, is peppered with claims that Mr. Erdogan supports the PKK, frequently referenced as an atheist gang, and accuses Ankara of siding with Jews and Crusaders, derogatory references to the West and the NATO alliance.

“There is no direct (message) of ‘go and attack everything in Turkey,’ but the simple condemnation and linking of the establishment with the PKK is really an invitation between the lines to take some steps against Turkey,” adds Mr. Kavalek.  “As is labeling them as the ones who cooperate with the Crusaders.”

Refugees seen as a threat

Many Turkey analysts, pundits and citizens see the presence on Turkish soil of roughly two million Syrian refugees as a long-term security liability, even though refugees have not been implicated in any of the recent attacks.

That fear was sharpened last month with the influx of thousands refugees after IS was defeated in Tel Abyad, a Syrian border town which linked the IS stronghold of Raqqa in northern Syria to Turkey and the rest o the world. Dozens of IS militants are suspected to have crossed over at the time, blending in with those genuinely fleeing violence.

“We don’t know how many of them sympathize with IS or are IS,” says Turkish politician Hursit Gunes, a sharp critic of the government’s open door policy which began with the Syrian conflict in 2011 and was only recently overturned.

“We not only have Syrian potential IS members but we also have Turkish potential IS members in our society too. There is some radical Islam in Turkey, and it can be armed and militant if provoked,” he adds.

Recruitment trends

There is no recent official figure on how many Turkish citizens have joined the ranks of IS. In November 2014, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said 600 Turks were fighting with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. But a pro-government journalist this June put the number as high as 7,000.

Many analysts believe that figure to be wildly inflated, but stress that the country remains fertile recruitment ground given the rise of hardline religious associations.

“There are two (recruitment) trends that we have identified until now,” says Furkan Aksoy, a Turkish masters student researching IS at Oxford University. “One of them is Islamic groups. … The other one is young kids without any political or religious background, suddenly joining IS,” especially from the conservative cities of Adiyaman and Bingol in eastern Turkey.

“We have in Turkey two groups of Kurds,” adds WINEP’s Mr. Cagaptay. “Those who go fight with the PKK and come back, and those who fight with ISIS and Al Qaeda and come back. That’s why the war in northern Syria between Kurds and ISIS is going to be inevitably imported to southern Turkey.”

An ethnic Kurd was blamed for last week’s deadly attack in Suruc, a Turkish border town near the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane. IS was widely suspected of being behind the attack, but has neither claimed nor denied responsibility.

“(Turks) fear Kurdish terrorism much more than they fear IS,” says Mr. Aksoy, adding it took President Erdogan “too long to convince the Turkish public to fight against IS.”


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