Turkey, ISIL and the PKK: It’s complicated
It’s a complicated equation, but it’s not too difficult to solve.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was founded in 2013, based on the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which previously called itself al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM). ISI was founded in 2004 in reaction to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
So, the U.S. is a leading actor in this theater from the beginning.
The renaming of ISI as ISIL was due to a vicious competition between the Iraqi and Syrian branches of al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the atmosphere of the civil war in Syria that started in 2011.
The al-Nusra Front was established in 2012 at a time when the makeshift Free Syrian Army (FSA), which was backed by the West and oil rich Arab counties of the Persian Gulf against the Bashar al-Assad regime, started to disintegrate. Al-Nusra was confirmed by al-Qaeda as its Syria branch in 2013.
As soon as al-Assad figured out the fragmented condition of the opposition, he decided to agitate it.
The release of al-Qaeda members from Syrian prisons could further empower the radical Islamists, which would eventually lead to the West, with the help of the Russians, starting to consider him as the lesser evil compared with the jihadists, allowing him to keep his chair. (It is known that al-Assad’s air forces have not hit ISIL positions, but rather those of the FSA, which gives justification to Turkey in asking for a U.S.-led no-fly zone over Syrian air space.)
So, ISIL came into the picture in 2013 and started to gain incredible support - not only in Syria but also in Iraq - thanks to the anti-Sunni radicalism of the former (Shiite) Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki there, unwillingly backed by both the U.S. and Iran.
In the meantime, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has already started to adapt itself to the new circumstances. The PKK has a history with the al-Assad regime. Its founding leader Abdullah Öcalan had been based in the Syrian capital Damascus thanks to Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, until Turkey threatened Syria with war in 1998. This ended up with Öcalan’s arrest in 1999.
After a 30-year fight that claimed 40,000 lives, the PKK is now carrying out negotiations with the Turkish government in pursuit of a political solution. But it is an organization that is active in Iran, Iraq (where its military HQ is based) and Syria. Its sister organization in Syria, the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), is now fighting against radical Islamist groups including ISIL in order to maintain its positions near the Turkish border. That brings us to the fight around the town of Kobane, or Ayn el-Arab.
Turkey assisted the FSA, but the rapid disintegration of the FSA - a disintegration that gave birth to al-Nusra and then ISIL - caught everyone rather unprepared. One clear example of this was ISIL’s seizure of 49 hostages from Turkey’s Mosul consulate in June, before releasing them in September through secret diplomacy and a personnel swap.
But Turkey was not alone. For example, on the foreign fighters issue, EU countries like the U.K., France, Germany, Spain and Belgium, whose citizens have been joining ISIL by travelling via Turkey, had declined until recently to give the names of the suspected militants. Despite Turkey’s demands, they are still often being allowed through their airport gates and into Turkey, where they ask the Turkish authorities to catch them after it’s too late: A hypocratical game for the sake of freedom of travel.
In the Syrian theater there are four main actors now: Al-Assad, ISIL (now acting together with al-Nusra), the PKK and the FSA.
Al-Assad is against the FSA, but does not attack either ISIL or the PKK.
Following U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for an anti-ISIL front, backing for the FSA could be resumed with money, weapons and training. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan underlined - after the Ahmet Davutoğlu government got a mandate from Parliament for commitment to military operations in Iraq and Syria - that Turkey desired neither ISIL nor the al-Assad regime in Syria. Despite the ongoing peace process negotiations with the PKK, the parliamentary mandate to the government also includes anti-PKK operations.
So Turkey is against al-Assad, ISIL and the PKK, and is perhaps the only country holding such a position.
That is why when Salih Muslim, the leader of the PYD, was in Ankara over the weekend to ask for military support against ISIL, Turkish officials told him to make clear his position against al-Assad and join the FSA, in order to enjoy international assistance (including from Turkey).
By saying this, Ankara was also telling the PKK to stop winking at al-Assad, saying that until a final peace agreement is reached, Turkey and the PKK will remain enemies.
Similar to Erdoğan’s words about “neither ISIL, nor Assad,” Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız said over the weekend that Turkey was not in a position to prefer the PKK over ISIL. Yıldız stressed that Turkey was against both.
Isn’t it interesting that neither Turkey’s foreign minister nor its defense minister made that remark, but rather its energy minister?