Turkey Cannot Effectively Fight ISIS Unless It Makes Peace With the Kurds

01/14/2016 09:02 am ET | Updated Jan 14, 2016
  • Ömer Taşpınar Senior fellow, Brookings Institution; Professor of National Security Strategy, U.S. National War College
ILYAS AKENGIN via Getty Images

Terrorist attacks with high casualties usually create a sense of national solidarity and patriotic reaction in societies that fall victim to such heinous acts. Not in Turkey, however. Despite a growing number of terrorist attacks by the so-called Islamic State on Turkish soil in the last 12 months, the country remains as polarized as ever under strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In fact, for two reasons, jihadist terrorism is exacerbating the division. First, Turkey's domestic polarization already has an Islamist-versus-secularist dimension. Most secularists hold Erdogan responsible for having created domestic political conditions that turn a blind eye to jihadist activities within Turkey.

It must also be said that polarization between secularists and Islamists in Turkey often fails to capture the complexity of Turkish politics, where not all secularists are democrats and not all Islamists are autocrats. In fact, there was a time when Erdogan was hailed as the great democratic reformer against the old secularist establishment under the guardianship of the military.

Yet, in the last five years, the religiosity and conservatism of the ruling Justice and Development Party, also known by its Turkish acronym AKP, on issues ranging from gender equality to public education has fueled the perception of rapid Islamization. Erdogan's anti-Western foreign policy discourse -- and the fact that Ankara has been strongly supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the Arab Spring -- exacerbates the secular-versus-Islamist divide in Turkish society.

Erdogan doesn't fully support the eradication of jihadist groups in Syria.

The days Erdogan represented the great hope of a Turkish model where Islam, secularism, democracy and pro-Western orientation came together are long gone. Despite all this, it is sociologically more accurate to analyze the polarization in Turkey as one between democracy and autocracy rather than one of Islam versus secularism.

The second reason why ISIS terrorism is exacerbating Turkey's polarization is related to foreign policy. A significant segment of Turkish society believes Erdogan's Syria policy has ended up strengthening ISIS. In an attempt to facilitate Syrian President Bashar Assad's overthrow, the AKP turned a blind eye to the flow of foreign volunteers transiting Turkey to join extremist groups in Syria. Until last year, Ankara often allowed Islamists to openly organize and procure equipment and supplies on the Turkish side of the Syria border.

Making things worse is the widely held belief that Turkey's National Intelligence Organization, or MİT, facilitated the supply of weapons to extremist Islamist elements amongst the Syrian rebels. Most of the links were with organizations such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Islamist extremists from Syria's Turkish-speaking Turkmen minority.

He is trying to present the PKK as enemy number one.

Turkey's support for Islamist groups in Syria had another rationale in addition to facilitating the downfall of the Assad regime: the emerging Kurdish threat in the north of the country. Syria's Kurds are closely linked with Turkey's Kurdish nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has been conducting an insurgency for greater rights for Turkey's Kurds since 1984.

On the one hand, Ankara has hardened its stance against ISIS by opening the airbase at Incirlik in southern Turkey for use by the U.S-led coalition targeting the organization with air strikes. However, Erdogan doesn't fully support the eradication of jihadist groups in Syria. The reason is simple: the Arab and Turkmen Islamist groups are the main bulwark against the expansion of the de facto autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Syria. The AKP is concerned that the expansion and consolidation of a Kurdish state in Syria would both strengthen the PKK and further fuel similar aspirations amongst Turkey's own Kurds.

Will the most recent ISIS terrorist attack in Istanbul change anything in Turkey's main threat perception? When will the Turkish government finally realize that the jihadist threat in the country needs to be prioritized? If you listen to Erdogan's remarks, you will quickly realize that the real enemy he wants to fight is still the PKK. He tries hard after each ISIS attack to create a "generic" threat of terrorism in which all groups are bundled up together without any clear references to ISIS. He is trying to present the PKK as enemy number one.

Only after a peace process with Kurds will Turkey be able to understand that ISIS is an existential threat to national security.

Under such circumstances, Turkish society will remain deeply polarized between Islamists, secularists, Turkish nationalists and Kurdish rebels. Terrorist attacks, such as the one in Istanbul this week and the one in Ankara in July that killed more than 100 people, will only exacerbate these divisions.

Finally, it is important to note that the Turkish obsession with the Kurdish threat has also created a major impasse in Turkish-American relations in Syria. Unlike Ankara, Washington's top priority in Syria is to defeat ISIS. The fact that U.S. strategy consists of using proxy forces such as Syrian Kurds against ISIS further complicates the situation.

There will be no real progress in Turkey's fight against ISIS unless there is a much more serious strategy to get Ankara to focus on peace with the PKK. Only after a peace process with Kurds will Turkey be able to understand that ISIS is an existential threat to national security.

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