Turkey’s political fight against terrorism

Turkey’s political fight against terrorism

The main reason behind the horrible Feb. 17 attack in Ankara is crystal clear: A world war is taking place just beyond Turkey’s borders which is penetrating the country.

One thing that distinguishes this war from the previous two world wars is that today non-state actors are also in play, in addition to traditional nation-states. Militia, terrorist organizations and hundreds of opposition groups have mushroomed in Syria. Moreover, these states and non-state actors have intermingled with each other. On top of that, a considerable number of these have conflicting interests with Turkey.

So what can Turkey do in the face of this new reality? What’s the best way to defend itself?

There is no possibility that Turkey will take unilateral military action. Even if it was willing to do so, it would not be able to change the balance of powers on the ground. First of all, ever since Turkey shot down a Russian jet on Nov. 24, Turkish jets have been unable to fly over Syria due to a potential clash with Russia.

Moreover, Syria is almost totally under Russian influence at the moment, and Russia wants revenge from Turkey. Even worse, this is not a point of interest for the U.S at all. This is what ties Turkey’s hands and feet to the ground.

But the situation is not so desperate. Turkey could wage a political and diplomatic struggle in the face of this reality. And that is what it looks like Ankara is trying to do.

Since Turkish officials declared the perpetrator of the Ankara attack to be a member of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), they have ramped up pressure on the U.S. to cut its support for the Democratic Union Party (PYD). This is more than evident in the most recent statements of both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

This demand, in turn, seems to have echoed in Washington. There has been an apparent shift in the U.S.’s rhetoric towards the PYD lately. 

Last week, State Department Spokesperson Mark Toner said the YPG’s moves around the Afrin canton (the western part of northern Syria) are counter-productive and undermine collective efforts to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Toner emphasized that the U.S. has urged the YPG not to “take actions or hold territory that is going to create tensions with Turkey.”

So the U.S. seems to have adopted a new rhetoric that takes Turkey’s sensitivities into account and that for the first time criticizes the YPG.

Washington might even take action along these lines. Toner specifically underlined at the same press conference that the U.S. doesn’t support the YPG’s moves around the Afrin canton, where the YPG has been receiving Russian air support. Washington may therefore be warning the PYD to halt its march forward in this area. 

Still, this does not mean that the U.S. will cut off its support to the PYD. This is why Turkey needs to find a sustainable solution to overcome the blockage created by its “PYD question.” The only way to achieve this is to decouple the PYD and the YPG.

Ankara had been pursuing this policy until last summer, when the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) restarted its terrorist attacks in Turkey. A high-level Turkish official stated in our meeting in mid-July 2015 that “if the PYD doesn’t move towards the west of Euphrates River and distances itself from the al-Assad regime, it could become a rational actor and have a say in Syria’s future.” In other words, he distinguished the PYD from the YPG.

Today, Ankara could try again to make the PYD dissociate itself from the YPG and shift totally to the political arena. This would prevent al-Assad, Russia and Iran from using the PYD as a trump card against Turkey, pave the way for cooperation with the U.S., and cut off the PYD’s support to the PKK, which would in turn diminish Turkey’s internal security threat.

The recent statement made by PYD Co-Chair Salih Muslim right after the attack in Ankara implies the possibility of such a change of course. “Turkey has never been and will never become [the PYD’s] enemy,” Muslim said. Then, in reference to PKK leader Cemil Bayık who said, “This attack might be in retaliation to the attacks on Kurdistan,” Muslim said the following: “We won’t interfere in Turkey’s domestic affairs. It’s none of our business who has conducted this attack.”

In other words, Muslim has clearly put distance towards the PKK and the YPG.

Beyond all these, we need to see the following: The Syrian war makes Turkey vulnerable to such terrorist attacks. It also paves the way for "accidents" such as Russia's border violations. This is exactly why Turkey needs to do its best and push for a political solution for Syria at the soonest time possible.