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A City at the Border

After nearly two months of fighting, the siege of Kobane by Islamic State (IS; also known as ISIS, or ISIL) forces continues to be repelled by Kurdish fighters and Syrian rebels. The Syrian Kurdish town near the Turkish border has been a media flashpoint in the conflict with IS in Syria/Iraq. Under attack by IS forces since mid-September, Syrian Kurdish forces (known as YPG, or People’s Protection Units) had largely been left to their own devices until the United States began conducting air strikes and air-dropping weapons into the town last month.

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Kobane, Syria

All the while, Turkish tanks and soldiers stood idly by near the border, unwilling to intervene in what one UN official warned could become “another Srebrenica.” In fact, Turkey initially refused to allow any anti-IS forces to cross its border into Syria, in spite of intense international pressure. On October 29, the government in Ankara relented, allowing 50-200 Syrian Arab rebels (under the umbrella Free Syrian Army, or FSA) and 150 Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to cross into Syria from Turkey to help defend the enclave. Turkey’s initial refusal to aid in the defence of Kobane in any way spurred harsh criticism from many. But Turkey’s original decision to seal its border—and its subsequent change of heart—are informative in evaluating how Turkey’s interests may differ from NATO’s in this conflict, and how this may impact Turkey’s future as a NATO member state.

While accepting about 200,000 Kurdish refugees from Kobane, Turkey’s initially position stems from the greater context of Turkey’s relationship with Kurdish populations in the Middle East and other regional actors. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has been embroiled in a three-decade-long war with the Turkish government that has calmed somewhat in the wake of recent peace talks between the two sides. However, Ankara, Washington, and the European Union all officially recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization. As Turkey recognizes the Syrian YPD as being affiliated with the PKK, it has been reluctant to allow any Kurdish forces across its border to aid the YPG fighting in Kobane. Some officials in the Turkish government see the current conflict as an opportunity for the PKK to carve out a Kurdish state in Turkey, prompting them to claim that the PKK is a greater threat than IS, and leading Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to state that “the PKK and ISIS are the same for Turkey.”

Even as Turkey has now relented and allowed FSA forces and Iraqi Peshmerga (the Iraqi Kurdish military, with whom Turkey has relatively good relations) to cross its border, it is still prohibiting any Syrian or Turkish Kurds from crossing into Kobane. In fact, Turkish forces and the YPG recently exchanged fire across the border, with the Turkish military also shooting and killing one Kurdish activist who attempted to cross into Syria.

In addition to Turkey’s especially hostile view towards Syrian and Turkish Kurds, its overall outlook on the fight against IS diverges significantly from its NATO allies. Like countries in the US-led coalition against IS, Turkey opposes the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. But in Turkey’s case, this has led to a softer line against IS, as Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has advocated an “integrated strategy” in Syria that addresses both the Islamist group and the Assad government. Turkish leaders have not been shy in voicing their reluctance to be more involved in the coalition effort against IS, with Davutoglu challenging: “If they (the international coalition) don’t want to send their ground troops, how can they expect Turkey to send Turkish ground troops…?” Erdogan has also publicly criticized the coalition’s fixation on Kobane, asking: “Why Kobani? Why not Idlib, why not Hama, why not Homs, why not Iraq, which is 40% occupied by ISIS?”

Ultimately there are some simple reasons why Turkey is in no rush to join the coalition and prioritize the defeat of IS above other interests. Turkey may not wish to take a leading role against “what was initially a Sunni insurgency movement.” And if that movement—the Islamic State—can help bring about Assad’s downfall and weaken the PKK-affiliated Kurds along Turkey’s border, the incentive to stop IS decreases even more.

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Refugee Centre in Turkey

When Turkey changed course by allowing Peshmerga and FSA fighters across its border, opinions on why this may have occurred were varied. Some see the move as being borne of a desire not to undermine promising, if gradual, peace talks with the PKK, who had been incensed with the Turkish government’s inaction. Others posit that Turkey was “isolated” and “terrified” by the actions of the US and its associated coalition, which were acting independently of—and perhaps counter to—Turkey’s interests. Turkey had never supported the US’ weapons drops in Kobane. Allowing some fighters to cross the border was a way of placating Turkey’s largest NATO partner and regaining a decision-making voice in the region. Others still maintain that the policy was not a change of heart at all; that Turkey still views the PYD and PKK as threats (and as such is not letting either cross the border), while only allowing “peace-oriented or moderate” forces (the Iraqi Peshmerga and FSA) freedom of mobility.

All in all, the episode is informative regarding Turkey’s role in this conflict and within NATO more broadly. Turkey has long been a lukewarm supporter of certain NATO missions (taking a limited role in Afghanistan, and participating reluctantly in Libya). Many commentators and citizens in Turkey view NATO with hostility. Feeling that the alliance has “hampered independent foreign policy-making,” Erdogan has cultivated a “conservative nationalist rhetoric” that may lead Turkey to go its own way more often on foreign policy.

With the gulf between Turkey’s and its Western allies’ foreign policy growing, particularly on the issue of IS, it appears that this relationship may remain somewhat strained for the foreseeable future. Even though Turkey changed its tune on Kobane—to an extent—to assuage American pressure, its goals in the conflict remain vastly different from the coalition’s. For Turkey, the Kurdish question comes first; Assad and, especially, IS take secondary roles.

Ben Abonyi
Benjamin Abonyi is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto with a double major in International Relations and Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies, with a minor in Environmental Studies. He has previously worked at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada and at the Population and Community Development Association in Thailand. He has also served as Outreach Coordinator for Oxfam U of T and as the editor of the Oxfam OUT Blog.