Just over one month after Turkey launched a two-front war against ISIS in northern Syria and the Kurdish PKK in Iraq, the country is facing violent blowback within its borders.
Clashes between Turkish security forces and insurgents in the country’s southeast have reportedly escalated to the level of “urban warfare,” the
Wall Street Journal reported recently, as PKK-linked youths dig “explosive-laden trenches” and carve out “autonomous zones” free from state control.
The unrest has been mounting steadily across the country since the Turkish military began striking PKK camps in northern Iraq on July 24, ending a two-year ceasefire with the terrorist organisation.
The PKK has lost around 800 fighters in the bombings, according to Turkey’s state-run news agency, Anadolu.
And more than 60 Turkish police officers and soldiers have been killed — and 200 wounded — in PKK attacks, Reuters reported.
Last Wednesday alone, gunmen attacked police outside a palace in Istanbul and eight soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb in the southeastern province of Siirt.
The wave of attacks, combined with reports that Kurds in the southeast are buying up weapons at an alarming rate, has some worried that the violence could ultimately spiral out of control.
‘A dangerous cocktail’
Given the current trajectory of violence in Turkey, a Kurdish insurgency is not outside the realm of possibility, Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider.
However, the PKK remains open to talks and has little to gain from a full scale war that would only weaken them more at a time when they want to be projecting strength.
“The possibility that Turkey’s Kurds are preparing for battle certainly bodes poorly for the country’s stability,” he said.”But the real danger here, in my view, is the combination of Kurdish unrest and the ISIS threat.”
“That is a dangerous cocktail I would want to watch,” he added.
NATO member Turkey has long been accused by experts, Kurds, and even Joe Biden of enabling ISIS by turning a blind eye to the vast smuggling networks of weapons and fighters during the ongoing Syrian war.
The consequence is now clear: Turkey allowed the group to establish a major presence within the country — and created a huge problem for itself.
“The longer this has persisted, the more difficult it has become for the Turks to crack down [on ISIS] because there is the risk of a counter strike, of blowback,” Jonathan Schanzer, a former counterterrorism analyst for the US Treasury Department, explained to Business Insider in November.
“You have a lot of people now that are invested in the business of extremism in Turkey,” Schanzer added. “If you start to challenge that, it raises significant questions of whether” the militants, their benefactors, and other war profiteers would tolerate the crackdown.”
A suicide bomber reportedly linked to ISIS — though that link has not been confirmed — killed 32 Kurdish activists in the southeastern border town of Suruc on July 21.
The attack set off a wave of protests across the country by those condemning the government for not doing more to detain the jihadis living and operating along the southern border.
After Turkey bombed ISIS for the first (and only) time on July 23, ISIS released a video recently by ISIS denouncing Erdogan as a “traitor” and calling on Turkish Muslims to take back Istanbul from “those crusaders, atheists and tyrants” has heightened fears that another Suruc-style attack — or worse — may be imminent.
Clear priorities — for now
The ongoing bombing campaign against PKK strongholds in northern Iraq came as a surprise to some Obama administration officials, one of whom recently accused Turkey of pulling a bait-and-switch by using the anti-ISIS agreement with the US as a “hook” to attack the Kurdish PKK in northern Iraq.
Turkey has long seen the PKK — a designated terrorist organisation that waged a three-decade insurgency inside Turkey — as more of an existential threat than ISIS, which refrained from launching attacks inside Turkey even as its militants lived and operated along the border.
“The PKK is a bigger threat to us [than ISIS], as it is active within the country,” a Turkish official told The Journal. “They stage attacks on our security forces on a daily basis, in many cities. ISIS is more active in Syria, and is therefore less urgent now.”
But as Schanzer highlighted, that urgency could change in a moment if ISIS decides to upset its tenuous peace with Ankara. Erdogan, meanwhile, will be try to balance going after both the Kurds and ISIS.
“Ankara’s recent shift in its approach toward ISIS requires continued vigilance to target the group’s network in Turkey,” Aaron Stein writes in the Atlantic Council. “Similarly, the resumption of PKK-Turkish state violence will also result in continued arrests and military operations, which will inevitably include HDP members in addition to ISIS-linked cells.
“For the foreseeable future, Ankara will find itself waging independent counterterror operations designed to realise two different political end goals — and resulting in low-level violence for the near-term. “
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