The bomb attack on the Turkish border town of Suruc in southeastern Turkey, targeting a group of activists planning to help rebuild Kobane across the border in Syria, came at an opportune moment for Turkey’s interim AKP (Justice and Development Party) government.
Unlike a bombing in another border town, Reyhanli, two years ago, which failed to attract U.S. support for Turkey’s campaign against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, this time the bombing has done the trick. The suicide bomber was a member of an Islamist group linked to ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), and by pointing the finger at ISIL, Turkey has gained Obama’s support for an incursion into Syria, as this falls in with American plans.
Three years ago, Turkey failed to secure the U.N. Security Council’s support for the creation of a safe zone for refugees and a no-fly zone along the Syrian border and has since lobbied for U.S. backing, but now a formula has been found. In return for allowing American aircraft the use of Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey for sorties against ISIL – instead of the long haul from the Gulf, or Iraq and Jordan, an agreement has been reached on creating an “ISIL-free zone” in northern Syria with U.S. air support.
The plan is to drive ISIL from an area running for 68 miles along the Syrian border and some 40 miles inland and to replace ISIL with “moderate” Syrian opposition forces such as the FSA (Free Syrian Army) to allow displaced refugees to return.
On paper, the plan provides welcome leverage for the U.S. in its offensive against ISIL and evidence of Turkey’s good intentions, but there are drawbacks.
The suicide bombing in Suruc has been met with widespread Kurdish anger against the AKP government, akin to the anger felt by the Kurds over what they considered the AKP’s abandonment of Kobane to ISIL. There have not only been demonstrations but the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has attacked the Turkish army and murdered two policemen in retaliation.
Turkey’s response has been to bomb PKK camps in northern Iraq and after a cross-border exchange of fire to launch air strikes against ISIL. The PKK’s reply has been unequivocal. “The truce has no meaning any more,” it stated on its website.
The peace process, which began in 2012, is now over, and the Istanbul Police Department and the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) have warned of impending attacks from both the PKK and ISIL.
Turkey’s latest move fits in with the AKP’s and, in particular, President Erdogan’s domestic agenda. Unable to garner Kurdish support in June’s election, the AKP’s aim of gaining an overall majority was thwarted by the Kurdish-based HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), which passed the electoral threshold and gained 80 seats out of the parliament’s 550. If the AKP is unable to form a coalition government with the leading opposition party, the secular CHP (Republican People’s Party), President Erdogan will call for a re-election in the hope that the AKP once again will secure an overall majority and legislate a new constitution to provide him with unbridled power.
Erdogan has also reneged on the Dolmabahce Agreement from the end of February, a 10-point list of priorities for the Kurdish peace process, which was prepared and announced by the Deputy Prime Minister and an HDP deputy. The President has called the HDP a parliamentary extension of the PKK and said it has “an inorganic link” with the organization. The HDP has called on the PKK to lay down its arms against Turkey, but it is feared the government may take steps to close the party, thus depriving Turkey’s Kurds of legitimate political representation.
On the other hand, there is an overall suspicion among the Kurds that the AKP government is in cahoots with ISIL. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s claim that “Turkey and AKP governments have never had any direct or indirect connection with any terrorist organization” flies in the face of last November’s report from the U.N. Security Council’s Analytical Support and Monitoring Team, which identifies Turkey as the primary route for weaponry smuggled to ISIL and the Al-Nusrah Front.
The State Department’s briefing at the beginning of June also stated Turkey is the main route for more than 22,000 fighters who have flocked to Syria to join extremist organizations, mainly ISIL. There are numerous other sources.
After the fall of Tel Abyad in June Erdogan declared Turkey would never allow the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Syria, and now the accord with the U.S. has provided an ideal opportunity to drive a wedge between a Kurdish canton to the west and two Kurdish cantons to the east in the form of an “ISIL-free zone.”
Davutoglu has said Turkey will not send in ground forces, but his foreign minister, Mevlüt Cavusoglu, has not ruled out the possibility. Nevertheless, 54,000 Turkish troops, tanks and artillery have been deployed on the Syrian border, if need be.
Such a move will further exacerbate tensions between Kurds on both sides of the border and Turkey’s AKP government.
As the HDP has warned in a statement: “It is a plan to set the country on fire in order for the government to secure a single-party government in a snap election, while creating an impression it is conducting a comprehensive fight against terrorism.”
Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.