On January 4, a 28-year old Saudi national, Nabil Fadli, detonated a suicide vest in the ancient Byzantine Hippodrome next to Istanbul’s iconic Blue Mosque, killing 11 tourists. Turkish authorities have indicated that the bomber is an Islamic State member who crossed the Syrian border before making his way to Istanbul via the border city of Sanliurfa. During 2015, the Islamic State killed 141 Turkish civilians, police, and soldiers in four separate attacks organized and carried out by an IS cell based in Adiyaman, Turkey. This latest attack, the fifth IS-linked bombing in less than a year, differs markedly from the previous bombings and probably will touch off a new phase in Turkey’s reaction to the problem posed by the Islamic State.
The previous four IS attacks were all linked to the same group of individuals. These individuals were based in Turkey, having crossed to Syria in or around March 2015 to aid with the fight to hold the border town of Tel Abyad and then returned after it fell to the Kurds. The Kurdish victory there in late June 2015 was one of a series of events that contributed to the collapse of a two-year old ceasefire between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish government in July 2015. These four attacks linked the war in northern Syria to the surge in violence in Turkey, with the results that Ankara is now squeezed amid a two-front war against IS in Syria and the PKK in Turkey.
The fifth attack ratifies the new situation. In a departure from the Islamic State’s previous focus on Kurdish related targets based in Turkey, the latest bombing struck a soft target linked to Turkey’s lucrative tourism sector. What is now clear is that the Turkish government must deal with an extraordinarily complicated challenge. The complications come in four layers: the multi-actor conflict within the Syrian civil war that impinges on Turkish interests; the multi-actor reality among the Kurds, both inside and outside Turkey; the changed domestic political situation within Turkey as a result of the collapse of the peace process with the PKK; and the changing roles of both Russia and the United States as they impinge on all of the above.
The intertwining of these conflicts complicates Turkey’s policy options in Syria and has ramifications for the U.S.-backed efforts to clear IS from its remaining strongholds along the Turkish-Syrian border. More broadly, the linkages between these two conflicts underscore how the Syrian conflict has spilled over the border and is now affecting Turkish society as well as the Turkish government’s security policy, more narrowly construed.
Some observers have blamed the Turkish government for the rise of the Islamic State, owing to Ankara’s decision to leave much of its border with Syria open between 2011 and 2014. This characterization is inaccurate. The Islamic State has its roots in Iraq and predates Turkish involvement in the Syrian civil conflict. Nevertheless, the group did benefit from Turkey’s lax border policy to bolster its ranks with thousands of foreigners who traversed Turkish territory to join the Islamic State. The group has also relied heavily on cross-border supply lines into Turkey, both to acquire goods for the territory it controls and as means to tax middle men who rely on smuggling to make a living.
After formally breaking ties with Bashar al-Assad in September 2011, the Turkish government has backed a variety of rebel groups working to topple the regime, including the Free Syrian Army and more conservative, Salafi-rooted militias with links to global jihadism. In certain instances, these groups—most notably, Ahrar al-Sham—worked together with Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, in Idlib province, opposite the Turkish border town of Reyahnli. Before IS split from Nusra, its subset of followers were dominant in 24 cities and villages in the area, according to the Washington Institute’s Aaron Zelin. During this time period, these three groups overlooked their differing visions about how to achieve their shared goal, the declaration of an Islamic State, in favor of focusing their military efforts on toppling Bashar al-Assad.
Tensions between Nusra/Ahrar and IS emerged in June 2013, before these three groups formally severed ties, after the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced his group’s presence in Syria in April. Baghdadi intended to subsume Nusra under his leadership. This internal disagreement prompted Nusra and Ahrar to take up arms against the Islamic State, and eventually resulted in the defeat of IS in Idlib in mid-March 2014.
Turkey’s policy has mirrored that of the Syrian rebels. Thus, while the three groups cooperated against Assad, Turkey did little to interfere. Similarly, when Ahrar and Nusra turned on IS, Turkey emerged as an indirect supporter of Nusra, particularly in northern Aleppo, where Ahrar now fights with other Turkish backed rebels against the Islamic State and the Assad regime. Turkey has maintained its policy of benign neglect towards Nusra, but is now actively engaged in a war against the Islamic State.
In late 2014, cross-border trade with Islamic State-controlled territory continued with little interference. Things began to change in early 2015, when Ankara began more concerted efforts to crack down on the flow of foreign fighters and goods. Turkey has since used Arab (but not Kurdish) rebel proxies in Syria to attack Islamic State positions in northern Aleppo, a process that began in December 2014 as an adjunct to Ankara’s efforts to unify the northern rebel insurgency. This approach coincided with the start of a pronounced crackdown on Islamic State members within Turkey, who had previously used well-established networks to move fighters and material to the Syrian conflict.
These efforts culminated in the Turkish government’s agreeing to open its airbases to the U.S.-led coalition in July, with the first U.S. unmanned airstrike from the base taking place in early August. The Turkish Air Force began to strike positions in northern Aleppo shortly thereafter but has since stopped flying missions over Syria over concerns that Russian aircraft would fire on Turkish aircraft in retaliation for Turkey’s downing of one of its bombers in late November.
Turkey’s efforts against the Islamic State have come amid a breakdown of a two-year-old ceasefire with the PKK, a U.S.-, EU-, and Turkish-designated terror group that has fought the Turkish government for autonomy since 1984. The ceasefire formally ended in mid-July, after a PKK-affiliated entity declared it null and void, prompting a wave of Turkish airstrikes against the group’s stronghold in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Kandil Mountains. The reasons for the collapse are linked to the rise of the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northern Syria in the context of the civil war, and to the Kurdish-IS clashes inside Syria. The collapse of the ceasefire, in turn, had major implications for Turkish domestic politics, as evidenced by the outcome of the two elections Turkey held in June and November of this past year.
The PYD has close links to Turkey’s nationalist Kurdish movement, represented in parliament by the Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP), and locally in Turkey’s southeast by the HDP’s regional branch, the Democratic Regions Party (DBP). The PYD works closely with Turkey-based DBP and HDP organizations for aid and to help smuggle goods to Kurdish-administered areas in Syria. Between 2013 and 2015, the Turkish authorities tolerated these crossborder linkages, going as far as to quietly acquiesce to the DBP’s running of refugee camps in Turkey for Kurdish and Yezidi refugees who had fled from Syria and Iraq independent from Ankara. These camps proudly flew a flag emblazoned with Abdullah Öcalan’s image and PKK members provided security. In Kurdish-majority urban areas, the PKK also became more visible, with state authorities appearing to tolerate the PKK’s presence to help sustain the slow-moving talks with Öcalan.
Inside Syria, the PYD frequently clashes with Turkish-backed rebel groups, including with Ahrar al-Sham. Turkey’s support for Ahrar helps explain why so many Kurds now accuse Ankara of working with the Islamic State. In November 2012, credible reports suggested Turkey allowed for a large group of rebels, including Ahrar and Nusra, to use its territory to attack the then-PYD held town of Tel Abyad. The town eventually fell, before a later Islamic State offensive captured it from the Turkish-backed rebel groups that controlled the city.
Previous Ahrar and IS collaboration in Idlib and in other smaller towns along the border has helped to solidify the pervasive belief among Kurds that the two groups are more or less the same ideologically and share a mutual antipathy toward Kurdish nationalism. Ankara’s close relationship with Ahrar thus contributes to the pervasive belief among Kurds of consistent Turkish’s support for the Islamic State, owing to this previous cooperation. Ankara has done little to dissuade the PYD of this view, often using Ahrar to put military pressure on the YPG in Aleppo, or by using other allied forces near the town of Azaz to prevent the further expansion of Kurdish forces from the isolated Kurdish-controlled area of Efrin.
For many of Turkey’s Kurds, the critical turning point came during the IS siege of Kobane. The Islamic State began its offensive outside of the city in the summer of 2014 and had nearly taken complete control of the town by September. In response to the growing violence, Ankara moved military forces to the border, but did not take direct military action. The U.S. government, in contrast, began to strike IS positions in late September, creating an alliance with the YPG that continues to this day.
Ankara’s hesitance to use military force, and concurrent rhetoric that equated the YPG with IS, undermined the government’s standing in Kurdish-majority areas. The IS-PYD conflict also began to spill over the border. In clashes mirroring tensions in Syria, HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas called on his party’s supporters in October 2014 to take to the streets to protest the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) handling of the Kobane crisis. The protests quickly turned into riots, with members of the PKK’s youth militia, the YDG-H, attacking Kurdish members of Huda Par, the civilian wing of a religiously conservative militia, Kurdish Hizballah, which many Kurds claim the Turkish government created in the 1990s to attack the leftist secular PKK. During two days of clashes, some fifty people were killed. The AKP did little to separate itself from Huda Par during the clashes, with then Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc suggesting openly that the group could be used as a counterweight to the PKK in the government’s peace talks with its imprisoned leader Adbullah Ocalan.
The HDP and other Kurdish parties accuse individuals affiliated Huda Par, the most prominent being Halis Bayuncuk (also known as Ebu Hanzela), of recruiting for the Islamic State in Turkey. This prompted a series of extra-judicial incidents beyond the October riots, where YDG-H members assaulted—and in at least five incidents, murdered—Huda Par members for their alleged links to IS. These clashes contributed to the radicalization of Kurdish youth in Turkey. Orhan Gonder, a member of the Adiyaman Islamic State cell linked to the four bombings in Turkey in 2015, told police after detonating two crude bombs at an HDP rally in Diyarbakir that the October riots had prompted him to join the Islamic State.
Two of his close friends, brothers Seyh Abdurrahman and Yunus Emre Alagoz, later became suicide bombers. Seyh attacked ESP, a leftist Turkish organization previously headed by Figen Yuksekdag, the current co-chair of the HDP along with Demirtas. The ESP’s sister organization, the Marxist-Leninst Communist Party (MLKP), has sent fighters to battle alongside the YPG against the Islamic State, purportedly as part of a larger project to create a communist state. Yunus and a second suicide bomber, identified only as a Syrian national, later targeted a large rally in Ankara, killing 109 attendees.
The Islamic State’s attacks have exacerbated these tensions. The IS-linked attacks on Kurdish-related targets appear to be linked to the PYD’s capture of Tel Abyad in late June/early July 2015. At least five members of the Adiyman cell fought in the waning days of the battle for the town, before a central figure in Raqqa sent Orhan Gonder, the Diyarbakir bomber, the Alagoz brothers, and the unidentified Syrian male to attack Kurdish-linked targets in Turkey.
Shortly thereafter, the Islamic State’s official Turkish-language outlet, Konstanniye, featured two Turkish suicide bombers on its front cover, and in a separate Islamic State video, a Turkish man, Fatih Acipayam, threatened President Erdogan and accused the AKP of giving support to the PYD. These changes to the Islamic State’s media strategy toward Turkey suggested that the group would now shift to target Turkish interests directly.
This shift had larger implications: Between 2013 and March 2015, Turkey and the Islamic State largely ignored one another. During that time period, Ankara focused much of its efforts on countering the Syrian regime, whereas IS still maintained access to its supply lines in Turkey via Tel Abyad and Kilis. However, by March 2015 Ankara’s strategy began to shift. In close coordination with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the Turkish government helped to organize and then arm the Jaysh al-Fateh rebel coalition to take Idlib province from the Syrian regime; a process that had its genesis in December 2014. The start of Jaysh al-Fateh’s offensive in Idlib coincided with a Turkish decision to close the border with Syria, both to decrease the amount of refugees that could cross to Turkey but also as part of the effort to take control of Idlib from the regime. In parallel, Ankara continued to push its allied rebel groups to unify in northern Aleppo, eventually succeeding in helping to form the Marea Operations Room to defend a narrow sliver of territory extending from the Oncupinar border gate through Azaz, Syria, to Aleppo city. And in Turkey, police forces began to crack down on Islamic State networks and purported sympathizers.
Working through the Marea Operations Room—which includes groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other Islamist-leaning factions—Ankara is now helping to organize the defense of the so-called Marea line from the Islamic State. The Marea Operations room does coordinate with Ahrar al-Sham, but Nusra has withdrawn from the area, reportedly in deference to Turkey’s declared policy of clearing IS from its border. However, in recent days, reports suggest Nusra may have returned to Idlib. Between late August or early September and November, Turkish jets patrolled this swath of territory alongside U.S. aircraft based at Incirlik to protect these groups from IS attack.
These joint patrols coincided with a dramatic increase in American support for the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group dominated by the YPG, but that also includes a handful of Arab and local tribal forces. Turkey has allowed for U.S. support for both the SDF and the YPG from Incirlik, and has thus implicitly recognized a difference between the PYD and PKK. This support is contingent on the SDF and YPG staying east of the Euphrates and not using American air power to connect Kurdish-controlled territory with the isolated Kurdish canton of Efrin, which borders Turkey’s Hatay province. Ankara has issued a clear red-line to both the SDF and the United States, saying that any YPG-backed offensive west of the Euphrates—and in particular, any effort to take control of the border town of Jarablus from IS—would result in the Turkish Air Force attacking the SDF/YPG.
The U.S. government has put pressure on its Kurdish allies to observe this red line, albeit while reportedly working with Turkey and the SDF to facilitate the taking of the Tishreen Dam from the Islamic State—which occurred on December 26. In doing so, Ankara appears to have acquiesced to the YPG-allied (and SDF member) Shams al-Shamal battalion moving west of the Euphrates under the cover of coalition air power, even though the operation has benefited the YPG. In parallel, U.S. forces have continued to strike IS positions in support of the Marea Operations Room-affiliated groups, thus contributing to the defense of Ankara’s overland supply route to Aleppo.
This Turkish strategy is at odds with Russia’s approach the Syrian conflict. Moscow’s intervention directly challenges aspects of it toward the Islamic State—and by extension, the emerging U.S.-Turkish cooperation on clearing IS from the Turkish border and north of Aleppo city. From the outset of its air campaign, Moscow has sought to challenge key aspects of Ankara’s strategy, starting with its decision to violate Turkish airspace on repeated occasions. Following Syria’s downing of a Turkish jet in July 2012, Ankara instituted more aggressive military rules of engagement, saying that it would treat any Syrian jet approaching the border as a threat, and hinting that it would fire on jets operating within a few miles of the border. These changes were meant to protect Turkish border towns from Syrian regime attack, while also creating a zone for rebel groups to operate along the border.
Russia has made a point of challenging these rules and Turkey’s defense of rebel groups on the border, going as far as to violate Turkish airspace on four different occasions. In response, Ankara shot down a Russian surveillance drone near Kilis and then downed a Su-24 bomber, which resulted in the death of one pilot at the hands of a Turkmen militia reported to have close ties to the Turkish government. Moscow has since increased the amount of strikes near Azaz and against Turkish aid organizations operating along the border. These strikes are intended to disrupt Turkey’s supply of aid and weapons to the opposition, including those affiliated with the Marea Operations Room.
In parallel, Moscow appears to be working with the YPG west of the Euphrates to aid with the Kurdish advance toward Azaz, and further south along the periphery of the Efrin canton. Ankara, in contrast, has stepped up efforts along its border to support the so-called Sultan Murad Brigade, a Turkmen militia involved in the Marea Operations Room. The Turkish military has provided direct artillery support to the militia in its battle against IS along the border, helping the group to take control of several small towns. Notably, the Sultan Murad Brigade also has been seen with U.S. manufactured anti-tank missiles, further suggesting Turkish-American collaboration against the Islamic State.
These groups, however, remain hostile to the SDF/YPG. Therefore Turkey faces a much broader set of future political problems stemming from its troubles with Kurdish nationalism and the resurgent PKK insurgency in the southeast. Even if Ankara and Washington succeed in clearing IS from the Turkish border, the advance of Arab and Kurdish groups portends continued clashes between these two rivals—and these clashes reverberate inside Turkey, particularly now that the peace process with the PKK has ended. For the time being, the PYD has no interest in involving itself in the PKK-backed insurgency inside Turkey. The group fights daily battles with the Islamic State and is intent on leveraging its military gains to achieve political and military autonomy inside a post-Assad Syrian state. Turkey has de facto recognized this, but its actions point to a longer-term effort to empower its own favored rebel groups to balance against the PYD and, in certain areas in Aleppo, to prevent those groups from finding common cause with the Syrian Kurds.
These dynamics have had an effect on internal Kurdish politics. Inside Turkey, the HDP has faced considerable pressure to support the PYD’s political project in Syria. In recent weeks, both HDP co-leaders, Demirtas and Yuksedag, have endorsed a plan for self-rule in Turkey’s southeast, including a vaguely worded commitment to form “autonomous regions in neighboring provinces in consideration of cultural, economic, and geographic affinities,” which raises questions about an overarching effort to link areas in Turkey with PYD-controlled territory in Syria. This comes amid a serious surge in violence in numerous Kurdish-majority cities and towns, where Kurdish Mayors have declared autonomy from the Turkish state and a PKK-allied youth militia, the YDG-H, patrols areas inside city centers.
Ankara responded initially to these developments with a large-scale police operation, but beginning in late November it deployed military troops, tanks, and artillery to clear the YDG-H, rebranded in recent weeks as the YPS, from numerous city centers. Many urban centers have been placed under a strict curfew, where, in certain instances, even ambulances have not been able to enter the conflict zone, leaving dead bodies and the injured in the streets or hiding in a building basement for days. During the clashes, artillery fire and YPS rocket propelled grenades have destroyed numerous buildings, and more than 100,000 residents have fled. The violence is ongoing and shows little sign of abating, despite the military’s heavy handed clearing of YDG-H/YPS held neighborhoods in the towns of Silopi, Cizre, and the district of Sur district in central Diyarbakir.
In response to the military’s slow progress, it appears as if the PKK is now taking a more pronounced role in the urban conflict, with snipers being deployed to target Turkish troops conducting operations or manning checkpoints. Turkey has announced an ambitious security plan to “hold” areas cleared of the YDG-H/YPS, and President Erdogan has ruled out a quick return to peace talks with Öcalan. More broadly, the military will eventually succeed in ousting the YPS from its positions in these urban areas.
However, the heavy reliance on artillery fire has helped to further alienate the local population, despite repeated government pledges to rebuild the destroyed areas. Moreover, even in areas where the military has declared victory, like Silopi, a strict curfew remains in place at night, and police and military check points prevent easy travel within the city. Local Kurds have also criticized the PKK for its role in bringing the conflict to urban centers. The Turkish government actions suggest that it is keen to take advantage of these cleavages to try and isolate the PKK domestically and, perhaps, split the movement. The Turkish government has pursued this strategy in one shape or another for close to three decades with little success.
These broader dynamics suggest that Turkey’s internal conflict with the PKK, the PYD’s military and political ambitions in Syria, and Ankara’s efforts to combat the Islamic State and the Assad regime have all merged. Ankara’s efforts to address one threat inevitably affect the other, both inside Syria and in Turkey. Further still, these conflicts also now have a geopolitical dimension, with Russia now giving air support to the YPG and the U.S. government maintaining its close partnership with the SDF. At the very least, Turkey’s preferred rebel groups in Syria remain hostile to the Syrian Kurds’ political ambitions, further suggesting that a successful operation to clear IS from its last remaining stronghold on the border could simply portend more violence among other parties in the Syrian conflict. This violence, in turn, exacerbates tensions inside Turkey, particularly now, after the collapse of the peace process.
All of this underscores how key elements of the Syrian civil war have spilled over the border, complicating Ankara’s recent dual-pronged efforts to attack the Islamic State as it addresses the rising Kurdish-linked violence inside the country. These two conflicts are now inextricably linked; events in Syria are now directly affecting Turkish society.