The Turkish Triangle

~ By Sanjal Shastri

The past two years have been particularly challenging for Turkey. On one hand, the Turks are facing threat from the ISIS. Sharing a porous border with Syria, it becomes a vulnerable target. The host of attacks on tourists and the attack on Istanbul airport add to the long list of ISIS attacks. On the other hand, Turkey also is also fighting a Kurdish separatist group the PKK. The July 16 Coup attempt adds a new dimension to Turkey’s duel battle.

There are some fundamental differences between Turkey’s ISIS and PKK problems. The PKK is fighting for a separate Kurdish homeland whose proposed territory includes parts of Turkey. Unlike the ISIS, the PKK is a secular organization. It is not involved with the ISIS’ larger goal of creating a caliphate. It is a group that operates across the international border with Syria. All the PKK fighters are Kurdish in ethnicity. The ISIS on the other hand is a part of a much larger global network. Turkey’s role in the international coalition against the ISIS and the open border with Syria make it an ideal target. Another fundamental difference between the PKK and the ISIS is the profile of targets they choose. The PKK mainly target government instillations. None of the PKK’s attacks have targeted civilian areas. The ISIS on the other hand chooses targets that are more crowed and often frequented by tourists. While there are marked differences between the two groups and their activities there is an underlying link between the war against ISIS, the PKK and the recent military coup attempt.

Concerns over law, order and national security due to the ISIS and PKK were factors that contributed to the attempted military coup. This was not the first attempt at a military takeover in the country. In 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 four civilian governments were overthrown. Economic hardships, threats to the secular fabric of the state and spiraling security issues were common factors that led to these coups. In 2016 similarly the government of Erdogan, has been accused of heavy handedness and threatening the country’s secular fabric. Increasing attacks by the ISIS and PKK have exposed the government’s failure to deal with national security. Going by the events in Turkish history, there is a link between increased instability and military coups.

The security concerns surrounding the PKK and the ISIS have put Turkey in a precarious position in Syria. On one hand Turkey wants to see the defeat of the ISIS. Their increased presence and activities in Syria make them a serious security threat. On the other hand Turkey is also concerned about the position of Kurdish separatists in Syria. A stronger and more autonomous Kurdish region in Syria would strengthen the Kurdish separatists in Turkey. The challenge for Turkey today is that the Kurdish forces will play an important role in defeating the ISIS. They have been able to put up effective resistance against the IS in the Kurdish regions of Syria. To add to this, the Turkish government has come out openly supporting Basher al-Assad’s removal. While Turkey would be happy to see the defeat of the ISIS and the removal of president Assad, it would not be confortable with the Kurdish regions gaining greater autonomy. Given the current situation on the ground, defeating the ISIS would require some sort of a partnership with the Kurdish groups and President Assad. The USA has already softened its stand on Assad, taking note of his importance in the battle against ISIS. This leaves Turkey with a very difficult choice to make.

The attempted military coup complicates Turkey’s fight against the ISIS and the PKK. On one hand Turkey is seen as a key NATO allay in the fight against ISIS. The coup and the international response have strained ties between Turkey and the NATO allies. Within a day of the coup President Erdogan was quick to point a finger at Fethullah Gülen, a cleric who is in exile in USA. The claim has not gone down well with the American establishment. The Turkish government also closed down the airspace for American jets. This has put American operations against ISIS positions in Syria on hold. The increased tensions between Turkey and other NATO members will impact the fight against the ISIS.

Domestically, the failed coup is bound to create tensions between the military and the government. The coup comes at a time when the government is trying to up military operations against the Kurdish separatists in Turkey. On one hand there was growing concern within the military over the rising costs of Erdogan’s hardline approach. Just two days before the coup, the government signed a bill, which gave the military immunity against any judicial probe into the military’s activity domestically. Now after the coup it is difficult to see the government going ahead and implementing this bill. The success of Turkey’s fight against the Kurdish separatists depends on how effective a role the military would play. With strained ties between the government and the military, there are concerns over the status of military operations against the Kurdish groups.

The failed military coup has created a ‘Turkish Triangle’. The strained civil military relations add a new dimension to Turkey’s fight against the ISIS and PKK. A simultaneous fight against Kurdish groups, the ISIS and Basher al-Assad is not a viable option for the Turkish government. The key role being played by Kurdish groups and President Assad in the fight against ISIS makes them an important factor in the battle. Turkey today faces a difficult choice. The attempted military coup has added a new dimension to Turkey’s problems. The strained relations between Turkey and her NATO allies have impacted the fight against the ISIS. It has already led to a halt in US’ air operations against ISIS. Domestically the strained civil-military ties pose a challenge to the military operations against Kurdish separatists. Now, lacking the confidence of the military, there are question marks over President Erdogan’s battle against Kurdish separatists. Over the coming days, two factors are will determine the future course of events. Firstly, international response to the coup and its aftermath will determine how ties between Turkey and her NATO allies shape up. The questions over the extradition of FethullahGülen will decide how Turkish equations with USA change. Strained ties between Turkey and other NATO members would jeopardize the international fight against ISIS. Secondly, the battle against Kurdish separatists will hinge on President Erdogan’s ability to win back the confidence of the military. With the military’s support needed to continue the battle against Kurdish groups, one will need to keep a close eye on how the civil-military relations pan out over the coming days.

Sanjal Shastri is an Academic Associate with the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the organization he is associated with.

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