Turkey vs. The Islamic State. A Possible Game Changer
Turkey’s border with Syria, as is well known, is the transit zone for foreign fighters and supplies of any kind, being it food or ammunition and weapons. The Islamic State controlled a long stretch of this borderzone. Thousands of foreign fighters found their way in to Syria or Iraq through the fragile Turkish border. Foreign fighters, currently in Syria or Iraq, even described how Turkish officials accepted bribes to allow foreign fighter convoys pass. Some media even claimed that the Turkish government was allowing this “free transit” to The Islamic State.
In a way Turkey gains by The Islamic State’s presence in Northern Syria. The fierce battle waging in Northern Syria between Kurds and The Islamic State slows down the steady building of an independent Rojava at the Turkish border, a serious threat to Turkey. The Turks most likely fear more Kurds might join this strife for independence. When Northern Syria would eventually become Kurdish territory, why would the Turkish border matter ? Kurds in southern Turkey will most likely join in for an independent Rojava. And so Kurdish nationalism is the red rag to the Turkish bull, it might be one reason why Turkey wasn’t really doing what the other NATO members expected. For more than two years the border issue was neglected.
On July 20 a bomb exploded during a mass meeting of young socialist Kurds in the southern border town of Suruç. Around thirty people were killed and over a hundred wounded in this brutal attack. The attack was immediately attributed to The Islamic State, although the group never even claimed the attack. The next day the PKK killed two Turkish police officers in what was described as revenge for the bombing. The Islamic State would indeed not gain by attacking Turkey, hereby opening a new front. On the other hand attacks like these spread unrest and chaos in southern Turkey, something that fits the overall strategy of The Islamic State. Whoever was responsible for the attack, it led to a chain of events that wasn’t expected.
Firstly Turkey banned Twitter for a couple of hours forcing the company to remove all pictues and videos of the Suruç attack. On July 23 it was reported that the Turks would increase their efforts in stopping foreign fighters crossing its border with Syria. Shortly after the news came out that the Turkish border was to be fortified with heavy deployments, drones, walls and even zeppelins. And then the situation quickly escalated. After a reported attack by Islamic State militants on a Turkish border point the Turks briefly invaded Syrian territory and drove back the insurgents. One Turkish soldier was killed and two wounded. The Turks even deployed tanks and artillery to fight The Islamic State. This attack was just the beginning as in the following night Turkish fighter jets bombed several IS targets inside Syria, killing around 30 fighters. It was also announced that Turkey would open up the strategic airport of Incirlik for American fighter jets, hereby providing the American led coalition with an airbase close to Syria. The distance the American jets would have to fly to attack The Islamic State hence decreased from about 1900 km to only 400 km. During the night of the 23rd Turkish security forces arrested 251 militants, not only IS militants but also PKK militants and even DHKP-C members were arrested during the nationwide raids. On the 24th it was also announced that, included in the deal between Turkey and the USA, a partial no-fly zone will be covered. Stretching over the Turkish-Syrian border from Marea to Jarabulus the no-fly zone would be around 90 km wide and 40 to 50 km deep.
This quote from Erdoğan kind of wraps up the current situation:
— CNN Türk ENG (@CNNTURK_ENG) 24 juli 2015
This all could turn out as a game changer in the war with The Islamic State; as Turkey, a NATO-member, could cut of all northern supply lines to The Islamic State. This would mean the steady influx of foreign fighters but also material support passing through the Turkish border would come to an end. If the no-fly zone is imposed over the area, described above, it would mean an important part of The Islamic State’s currently controlled terrain is an open target for the US led international coalition. Another major gain for Turkey lies within the fact that by controlling this area it can thwart the Kurdish dream of creating one big independent state on the Turkish border, a state that would join the two already existing Kurdish cantons in Northern Syria. However, another, more grim, scenario would be that The Islamic State starts attacking soft targets in Turkey, most likely targetting the tourism. It, for now, remains unclear how this sudden turn of events will evolve, but it is safe to say the war on The Islamic State entered a new phase.
Picture 3: Turkish armed vehicles in Syria on July 23