Turkey’s Counterterrorism Policies: Targeting ISIS and the PKK

Turkey has recently launched a large-scale anti-terror campaign targeting Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) networks and suspected members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—a US, EU, and Turkish designated terror group. Turkish President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan has argued that Ankara does not distinguish between these two groups, indicating that they both pose an equal threat to Turkish security.

Despite efforts to conflate the two groups and to describe Ankara’s operations as an all-encompassing war on terror, the reasons for the crackdown on the PKK and ISIS are different. Turkey began targeting ISIS in March, some four months before the recent focus on the PKK. By contrast, the recent crackdown on the PKK began after the break down of the AKP-backed peace process and the ISIS-linked suicide bombing of a leftist youth group in the border town of Suruç in late July.

The PKK blamed Ankara for the bombing, arguing that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has links to ISIS and has used the group to block Kurdish advances in neighboring Syria. A large number of Turkey’s Kurds believe that the AKP supports the ISIS, claiming that Ankara has used jihadist groups as a proxy force to target the Democratic Union Party (PYD)—a PKK linked group inside Syria that now controls 265 miles of territory along the Turkish-Syrian border.

This narrative has deepened social tensions inside Turkey and directly contributed to the breakdown of the peace process. In retaliation for the Suruç bombing, the PKK killed two police officers, which prompted Ankara to launch at least 300 airstrikes against the group’s strongholds in Iraqi Kurdistan and in southeastern Turkey. The PKK launched a number of reprisal attacks against civilian and military targets, killing at least sixty-six security personnel since July 20.

Many of Turkey’s Kurds attribute Ankara’s decision to use force to the AKP’s recent electoral setback and the need to undercut the appeal of the Kurdish majority Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP). The HDP’s success in the June 7 election effectively prevented AKP from forming a single party government for the first time in thirteen years. The AKP has since failed to find a coalition partner, which means that Turkey will hold an early election on November 1.

Erdoğan will use the anti-PKK raids to undermine support for the HDP and drive up vote totals for the AKP, thereby allowing the AKP to regain its parliamentary majority. The data does confirm that Turkey has arrested a larger number of HDP-affiliated individuals than those linked to ISIS and other jihadist groups. As of August 18, police have detained 1,375 members of the HDP compared to some 205 Islamic State or al-Qaeda-linked individuals after the Suruç bombing. Of those detained, 195 HDP members have been formally arrested, compared to some seventy-two jihadist-linked individuals, according to Istanbul-based journalist Noah Blaser. However, there may have also been more ISIS related arrests after the fall of Tel Abyad that went unreported.

The data indicates that the focus on ISIS dramatically increased in early July, with security forces conducting twenty raids in nineteen different cities. Ankara has maintained this pace, conducting at least twenty-four different raids in nineteen different cities in August, although the number of people arrested after being detained has yet to be reported. This is in line with a recent shift in Turkey’s approach to foreign fighters. Ankara has recently deployed more military forces to well-known ISIS transit routes along the border, reportedly after being named as co-chair (along with the United States) of the anti-ISIS coalition’s foreign fighter task force. Taken together, this pattern suggests that the arrests are one component of a change to Ankara’s approach to the militant group. Before the crackdown, Ankara had drawn criticism for its lax border policy and its reported acquiescence to the ISIS presence inside Syria.

The focus on ISIS coincided with an agreement to allow US aircraft to base at Incırlik air base. US manned and unmanned aircraft have begun to strike ISIS positions from Incırlik and the Turkish Air Force will reportedly join the campaign in the coming days or weeks. If Ankara continues to strike PKK affiliated targets, the Turkish Air Force may soon be engaged in a two front air war, albeit in support of two different political objectives. The stated reason for the PKK-specific air strikes is to force the group to disarm and withdraw from Turkey. However, in recent days, Turkey may have shifted its objective to forcing the PKK to declare a unilateral cease-fire. Presumably, either outcome would portend an eventual return to the negotiating table and a resumption of the peace process.

By contrast, Ankara’s forthcoming airstrikes as part of the anti-ISIS coalition would support three interrelated policies. First, Ankara hopes to create an ISIS-free zone along its border with Syria. Second, by doing so, Turkey would prevent the further empowerment of the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party, which has received direct US air support and now controls 265 miles of territory along the Turkish-Syrian border. Third, absent an agreement with the United States to impose a formal no-fly zone, Ankara hopes that the increased air traffic over areas in northern Syria would deter Syrian regime jets from striking Aleppo, thereby creating of a de-facto no-fly zone.

In both cases, the use of force may not lead to the desired political end-state. First, it is unclear how PKK militants could withdraw from Turkey, absent a guarantee from the AKP that they would not be targeted from the air. The PKK has demanded a formal law governing the proposed withdrawal since the start of the peace talks in 2013, but the AKP has thus far refused to propose such a law in parliament. Given the current escalation, this issue is certain to become even more problematic and undermine efforts to return to negotiating table. Second, ISIS has withstood a year of US and coalition airstrikes, underscoring the need for a more comprehensive political solution aimed at ending the Syrian conflict to better confront the extremist group.

In Syria, the desired end goal is the defeat of ISIS, the overthrow of the Assad regime, and the maintenance of a strong centralized state committed to ensuring that the PYD does not gain independence in a post-Assad scenario. Inside Turkey, Ankara’s aims are tied to the resumption of peace process, and therefore under the influence of domestic politics. Turkey’s polarized political climate certainly complicates the softening of the AKP’s current approach to the PKK. Erdoğan and the AKP have lost the support of Turkey’s religious Kurds, prompting a political campaign to court the nationalist right. These voters reject compromise with Turkey’s Kurdish political movement and remain skeptical of Erdoğan due to his previous support for the peace process. Thus, Erdoğan has a political incentive to continue targeting the PKK to demonstrate his anti-Kurdish nationalist bona fides, despite rising casualty figures and violence in the southeast.

This dynamic suggests a continued Turkish emphasis on counterterrorism in the near term. Ankara’s recent shift in its approach toward ISIS requires continued vigilance to target the group’s network in Turkey. Similarly, the resumption of PKK-Turkish state violence will also result in continued arrests and military operations, which will inevitably include HDP members in addition to ISIS-linked cells. For the foreseeable future, Ankara will find itself waging independent counterterror operations designed to realize two different political end goals—and resulting in low-level violence for the near-term.

Aaron Stein is a Nonresident Fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, a Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

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Image: A Turkish Air Force transport aircraft flies over a minaret after took off from Incirlik air base in Adana, Turkey, August 12, 2015. (Reuters)