The deal between the United States and Turkey over the IS dilemma

As Turkey recently ‘joined’ the US assault on the IS militant group in Syria, their renewed attacks on PKK separatists have resulted in an end to a two-year peace treaty with the Kurdish Workers’ Party

t looked like good news in the beginning, but the reality on the ground turned out to be different.

The recent security arrangements between the United States and Turkey over the Turkish-Syrian borders implied that Ankara would finally become involved in the efforts of the Washington-led coalition combating the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

To the contrary, Turkey became engrossed in a re-emerging conflict against the Kurds, posing doubts —according to analysts and academics — about its seriousness in fighting the IS militants, and, furthermore, jeopardising its internal “peace.”

Incirlik base & free IS zone

A deal between the United States and Turkey over the IS dilemma was not possible one year ago, due to a bundle of disagreements between the two sides, including Turkey’s insistence on waging a parallel fight against Al-Assad’s regime by the US-led coalition.

The difficulties might also be linked to the presence of economic relations between Turkey and the IS, which has been highlighted in several recent news reports. The Guardian reported last month that Turkey and IS militants are engaged in “oil trade” that is the main source of revenues for the militant group. The report also claimed that IS oil revenues range from between $1m-$4m on a daily basis.

The NATO partners reached two major understandings in July. The first involved allowing US planes to launch air strikes against IS militants from the US Incirlik air base near the Turkish-Syrian border.

The first understanding followed a phone conversation between the US President Barack Obama and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Later, both sides agreed to create an “IS free zone” in northern Syria along the borders with Turkey by pushing IS militants away from a 60-mile strip. The agreement aims to eventually bring the area under the rule of pro-western Syrian rebels, which would then allow for a return of Syrian refugees into a safe territory.

The plan’s extent of success is yet to be seen.

In February, Turkey signed an agreement with the United States on training and equipping more than 400 Syrian opposition fighters who will fight the IS.

The UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) statistics reveal that more than four million Syrian refugees have fled the country since the eruption of the civil war four years ago.

Turkey, alone, hosts about 1.8 million of the Syrian refugee total.

On Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters that Turkey will start its “fight against ‘Daesh’ very effectively soon.”

But why have the Turks accepted a comprehensive deal on the IS now?

According to Aaron Stein — a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East — it was all about a suspected IS suicide bombing on the Turkish border town of Suruc that led to the death of 32 people and the injury of almost 100 on 20 July.

Stein believed that a “tacit agreement” between the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey and the IS group to avoid clashing against each other has been “fraying for months.”

“I suspect that Turkey will support the US once strikes ramp up in and around the cities of Manbij, Jarablus, and Aleppo,” he said.

It’s not only about IS

In July, Turkey launched airstrikes against the IS group, but also attacked the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). For Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, aerial attacks against the Kurds were” a “synchronised fight against terror.”

A ceasefire agreement  between Turkey and the PKK has held for two years after fruitful negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan — the groups’ leader – which brought an end to the conflict with Turkish army that raged since the 1980’s.

In July 2014, the Turkish parliament passed legislation that legalised talks with the PKK, though no progress has been seen since then.

Now, the truce is dead.

“So far, the bulk of the Turkish strikes have targeted Kurdish forces,” Aykan Erdemir, ex-Turkish parliamentarian of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told Ahram Online.

Erdemir believes that Turkey’s fight against the Islamic State is a pretence for ending the peace process and targeting Kurdish factions. He added that Turkish efforts against Sunni extremists “will remain half-hearted as long as Erdogan has the upper hand in Turkish politics.”

The European Union and the United States have recently called on Turkey to show a “proportionate response” to Kurdish operations. The latest Kurdish attack came Tuesday in the form of a roadside bomb that killed three Turkish soldiers in Sirnak province.

Facing a condemnation by all member states of the Arab League — except for Qatar — Turkish air strikes against Kurds expanded to the Iraq-Turkey borders.

Iraqi Kurds urged PKK to leave residential areas following reports that civilians had been killed amid the air strikes.

The Turkish Anadolu Agency reported that more than 260 PKK fighters have been killed and about 400 injured since Turkey started its aerial operations against the group inside Turkey and Iraq.

Nothing is irrelevant to internal affairs          

Even in domestic politics, the Kurds embody a headache for Erdogan.

Because of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) recent rise in the last parliamentary polls, Erdogan, a long-time premier-turned-president, failed to accomplish his ambition of increasing presidential powers through constitutional changes, an issue that has been part of Turkish politics for a few years now.

As usual, the AKP received the highest number of votes in the elections with 40.87 percent [258 seats]. However, it lost its majority.

The HDP – which took part in the electoral race for the first time as a party – surpassed the 10 percent threshold necessary to enter parliament, and took seats from AKP candidates. The party came in fourth with 13.12 percent [80 seats].

Even Selahattin Demirtas, HDP’s leader, came third in the presidential elections that Erdogan won last year. The HDP, which is significantly different from the PKK, emerged as a major opponent to the Turkish air strikes on Kurdish sites.

“A few air raids were launched by Turkey against IS targets for show only and it is over,” Demirtas told AFP on 30 July.

“So-called IS suspects were detained with a few operations for show and most of them were released.”

Demirtas also stressed that the Turkish-Kurdish peace process is now “in a deep crisis” and that Erdogan is attempting to place the PKK and IS on the “same scale.”

In the meantime, as Turkish political parties remain unable to form a coalition government, Erdogan says Turkey should hold early elections. “For more than 20 years, the [average] longest lifetime for coalition governments has been three or four months. There have been coalition governments that lasted even 16 months,” Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News quoted him as saying as late as 5 August.

Ziya Meral, a London-based researcher on Turkey, said that it would not be possible for the AKP in the near future to to regain the votes it lost to the HDP.

Yet, he said, the HDP is itself  in a tough situation. The pro-Kurdish party , Meral said, is “caught in the cross fire” between Turkey and the PKK, as it fails to please both the PKK supporters and “more democratic peace driven voters.”

Describing it as a “dangerous game,” Erdemir emphasised that Erdogan is “playing the nationalist card” and pushing for snap elections, although the AKP-CHP talks for government formation are still ongoing.

“He thinks that the escalation of violence against the Kurds could help the AKP consolidate the Turkish-nationalist votes, while also costing the pro-Kurdish HDP its non-Kurdish supporters,” Erdemir concluded.