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An Inconvenient Excuse: The hidden agenda behind Turkey’s response to ISIL

In the beginning of September, the Turkish town of Cizre found itself in the midst of an armed conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Located near the Turkish border with Syria, Cizre is one of several communities in the southeast where the conflict between Turkey and its Kurdish population has taken its toll. More than 20 Kurdish civilians in Cizre have died in the clashes, and the conflict in the southeastern region of the country has led to more widespread unrest and violence. The worst of it came this October, when over 100 people were killed at a peaceful demonstration in Ankara while protesting the conflict — marking the deadliest attack in modern Turkish history.

In a region rife with unrest, the Kurdish independence movement and Turkey’s recent commitment to fighting ISIL may at first seem unrelated. Only a few months prior to the attacks in Ankara, Turkey announced an increased military commitment to combatting ISIL in the region. But Turkey’s military escalation isn’t only a counterweight to ISIL’s ascent. It also plays into Turkey’s national interests — particularly suppressing the Kurdish independence movement. The instability and chaos generated by ISIL’s expansion has created a vacuum for Kurds to collectivize and act, perhaps laying the groundwork for an independent Kurdistan.

The Kurds — an ethnic group of more than 30 million people living in adjacent parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria — have a long history of resisting governments that have systematically discriminated against them. Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Kurds have experienced constant persecution. Following the 1980 coup, for example, the Kurdish language — as well as the words “Kurd,” “Kurdish,” and “Kurdistan” — were forbidden under threat of imprisonment. Before the ban was lifted in 1991, the Turkish government even labeled the Kurds “Mountain Turks.”  Until recently, Kurdish political parties were banned as well. In 1991, Leyla Zana, the first female Kurd to be elected to Parliament, ended her inauguration oath with a sentence in Kurdish: “I take this oath for the brotherhood between the Turkish people and the Kurdish people.” The use of Kurdish speech in the Turkish parliament was deemed treasonous, and Zana was imprisoned for 10 years.

Unsurprisingly, the ghosts of repression and injustice are woven into the fabric of Kurdish culture. Picking up this thread, the PKK — a militant rebel organization — emerged in the 1970s to fight for the political and cultural rights of the Kurdish people. It has been in open conflict with Turkey ever since. Turkey and its Western allies have labeled the PKK a terrorist organization, and although it enjoys support from a majority of Kurds in Turkey, the group should not be conflated with Kurdish civilians. In fact, the PKK-Turkey conflict has, in many ways, made matters worse for civilians. Entire villages have been destroyed and set on fire, Kurds displaced, and food embargoes placed on Kurd-populated areas as a response to the PKK rebels.

Tensions between Turkey and the PKK have been rising since the implementation of a 2013 ceasefire, but ISIL was the primary justification for Turkey’s military activity against the Kurds. During the summer, ISIL staged two attacks on civilians and the Turkish military. On July 20, a suicide bombing in Suruç killed 33 people and injured more than 100, most of them Kurds and left-wing students sympathetic to the Kurdish movement. Days later, ISIL attacked Turkish military personnel, killing one and injuring two. Turkey responded with two-day airstrikes on ISIL military bases in Northern Iraq. However, ISIL was not the only target of these attacks. During its strikes on ISIL, Turkey also systematically attacked critical PKK military positions in Iraq. This betrays a second military goal for the Turkish government: to undermine the Kurdish faction.

Until provided with an opportunity to weaken the PKK, Turkey was reluctant to combat ISIL. While ISIL held the Kurdish-populated Syrian city of Kobanî under siege, Turkey was criticized for its neglect. Not only did it disregard Kurdish civilians in Kobanî, but it also controlled borders and prevented Turkish Kurds from going into Syria to fight ISIL. The Turkish inaction prompted violent riots during which more than 90 people died and the police met Kurdish protesters with tear gas and water cannons. At the time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed that Turkey was not ready to launch attacks against ISIL unless the attacks were also against the Syrian government. This passivity led to accusations of collaboration between Turkey and ISIL, which the PKK later cited as a cause of the ISIL suicide bombing that killed over 30 Kurdish sympathizers. In retaliation, the PKK was thought to have killed two police officers in the town of Ceylanpınar. Although the PKK denies connection to the Ceylanpınar incident, the Turkish military used it as pretext to conduct an aggressive campaign against the Kurds in Iraq, citing national security concerns.

Although the PKK’s role in the Ceylanpınar incident remains unclear, what is clear is that the conflict has killed civilians and come close to US training sites. Nor is the PKK the only one that has accused the Turkish government of supporting ISIL. Although he later apologized, US Vice President Joe Biden suggested that Turkey had inhibited the fight against ISIL by keeping the border between it and Syria too porous. David L. Phillips of Columbia University claimed that Turkey’s support ranges “from military cooperation and weapons transfers to logistical support, financial assistance, and the provision of medical services.” Further proof has emerged that Turkish officials have dealt with ranking members within ISIL. In spite of the two nations’ strategic and military alliance within NATO, tensions between the United States and Turkey have intensified due to Washington’s support for the Kurds.

Further complicating the issue, the Turkish government has arrested suspected PKK and ISIL collaborators across 16 of its provinces. The counterterrorism operation was justified as a response to the suicide bombing in Suruç and the attacks of ISIL and the PKK on Turkish police and military. Under heavy political pressure to respond to terrorist attacks, the Turkish government detained as many as 590 suspected individuals.

Beyond the government operations both within and without Turkey, escalating tensions within the country have caused a spillover of nationalist civilian violence — including, most recently, the October bombing at the pro-Kurdish protest in Ankara that killed over 100 people. Outraged nationalist mobs waving Turkish flags have also attacked offices of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), burning its local headquarters in Alanya and breaking into its main office in Ankara. Kurdish small businesses and the offices of the Hürriyet newspaper have become targets of the Turkish nationalist mobs. Moreover, the mobs have attacked Kurdish civilians in western Turkey, injuring many and killing others. These ongoing outbursts underline the long history of discrimination against the Kurds throughout Turkey at the hands of both the state and civilians.

But the news hasn’t been all bad. Despite civil discord and increasing antagonism from Turkey, the Kurds now control a significant territory in northern Iraq and Syria, and their ties with the West have strengthened substantially. Although Turkey’s ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has stated that it is ready to accept an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, this would in no way be a favorable geopolitical development for Turkey. Given the bloody history of Turkish-Kurdish relations, an independent Kurdish state only validates and emboldens Kurdish separatism in Turkey.

Besides the fact that Kurdish people now control territory in Iraq and Syria, the Kurds have also achieved some political progress within Turkey. In the June 2015 elections, the AKP lost the majority it had held for over a decade. And the socialist and pro-Kurdish HDP won 13 percent of the vote with support exclusively from the Kurdish-populated regions of Turkey. Nevertheless, the operations against ISIL and the PKK, as well as the crackdown on Kurdish factions and ISIL in Turkey, have all taken place since the country’s elections, making it unclear whether electoral progress is possible.

This is a pivotal moment for the Kurds. The instability caused by the rise of ISIL in the region has given the Kurdish separatist movement a window of opportunity, bringing the deeply entrenched historical animosity between Turkey and its Kurdish population back to the forefront. Turkey’s newly fortified military campaign against ISIL must be understood with this in mind, as the country seems willing to use the conflict as an opportunity to undermine the Kurdish agenda. Despite Turkey’s military power and strong allies in the region and in the West, its willingness to play such undignified power politics is a major drag on the region’s stability.  

Art by Tiffany Pai