Why Ankara is under pressure over ISIL?

Why Ankara is under pressure over ISIL?

Last week, former U.S. Ambassador to Ankara Eric Edelman published an article in the New York Times titled “America’s Dangerous Bargain With Turkey.”

This week, an editorial in the same newspaper skeptically described Ankara’s joining of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as “Turkey’s War of Distraction.”  

Both pieces made the same claim: President Tayyip Erdoğan has used the recent cooperation against ISIL as a cover for Turkey’s massive operations against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The latter has been a key fighting force on the ground against ISIL via its sister organization in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), so Ankara’s attacks on the PKK actually weaken the fight against the notorious jihadist organization. 

In another recent article, “Repeat Elections, Repeat Results?” Bülent Alirıza, the head of the Turkey program of the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS), questioned whether the move against the PKK was related to Erdoğan’s dissatisfaction with the June 7 election results, ahead of the government trying its chances once again in the re-election scheduled for Nov. 1.

The interesting point is that Turkish jets (at last) joined coalition forces in actual raids against ISIL targets in Syria on Aug. 28 and 29 from Turkey’s strategic İncirlik Air Base, according to official sources. Those attacks came hours after a Pentagon statement on Aug. 28 saying that joint raids might take place “very soon.”

Meanwhile, security operations against acts of terror by the PKK are still ongoing - mainly within Turkey rather than against the PKK’s bases in northern Iraq as was the case in late July and early August. Perhaps it is worth mentioning at this point that the PKK is on the U.S. blacklist of terrorist organizations while the PYD is on neither American nor Turkish blacklists. It also worth mentioning that the rules of engagement given by Ankara to the Turkish military for the PYD are to reciprocate any fire but to not consider it an “enemy” - unlike the PKK.

Despite denials from U.S. officials that they have had any contact with the PKK, it is not hard to speculate that the PKK is telling the Americans that it cannot devote its full capacity against ISIL as it now has to fight against the security forces of Turkey, America’s ally. The Barack Obama administration now has access to İncirlik and the cooperation of Turkey (the only Muslim-majority member of NATO) against a terrorist organization calling itself the “Islamic State,” but it also gives all necessary messages to the media that Ankara is still not doing enough, which helps to assuage the PKK/PYD forces on the ground.

But the real reason to explain the amount of pressure on Ankara over its stance against ISIL - especially at a time when Turkey has actually joined the raids - must be something else, as it has continued to be applied even after the beginning of the joint raids. The reason could be the Obama administration’s rising level of distrust in the Erdoğan administration. If so, that distrust would extend to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government, now heading to a re-election in a cabinet alongside deputies (involuntarily, in accordance with the constitution) from the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which was recently denounced by Erdoğan as the “political extension of the separatist terrorist organization [PKK].”

Will the U.S.’s lack of trust continue after the Nov. 1 elections? It depends on the result. If the outcome of the snap election is similar to the June 7 vote, forcing the AK Parti into a coalition government and forcing Erdoğan to admit that his desire to concentrate all power in the presidency is unrealizable, the distrust could fade. But if Erdoğan pushes for yet another re-election after Nov. 1, or if the AK Parti is able to form a single-party government, the Erdoğan’s path may be clear for a super presidency and Washington’s distrust would continue. 

All things considered, it seems that the current discord essentially boils down to the basic lack of trust between Obama and Erdoğan.