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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

FROM A BYSTANDER: SHIFTING THE BALANCE AGAINST ISIS Turkey joins the US to fight ISIS

There has been a significant development in the war against IS. Turkey has joined the US-led coalition.
Turkey has so long been sitting on the fence as far as containing IS on its borders was concerned. Despite criticisms, Ankara was reluctant to join the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve, which began in August 2014. Though a strong NATO ally, Turkey also did not agree to let the US Air Force use its airbases to attack ISIL positions inside Iraq. There were allegations that Turkey allowed ISIL sympathisers and terrorists to cross over the borders from Syria.
But all that changed on July 20 when 32 people were killed by a suspected IS suicide bomber at Suruç district bordering Syria. The incident shook Turkey.
On July 24, Turkish F-16 fighter jets launched air strikes against IS held positions inside Syria, reportedly killing 35 militants. Turkish jets also bombed Kurdish positions is Syria and Iraq. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at a press conference that the operation was not a one-off move and would widen gradually based on security needs of the country. “The operations … will continue for as long as there is a threat against Turkey,” said Davutoglu. Police, so far, have arrested over 1000 suspected ISIL and Kurdish terrorists in raids after the suicide bombing incident.
Turkey thus opened two war fronts – one against IS and the other against the Kurds.
Turkey's strategic shift comes following an agreement reached between President Barack Obama and President Tayyip Erdogan on July 23, 2015. Turkey has also given permission to the US Air Force to use its airbases for attacks on ISIS. American fighter jets have so long been operating from its aircraft carrier based in the Mediterranean. Coalition fighter planes and drones will now fly from bases closer to enemy positions in Syria and Iraq.
The bombing of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) hideouts inside Syria and Iraq is puzzling. PKK and Kurdish Peshmerga are fearless secular fighters as opposed to IS. America supported the Peshmerga with huge arms supplies last year, when Erbil and Mosul came under ISIS attack. America looked upon Peshmerga as its ally on the ground against IS.
On the other hand, Ankara has been engaged in negotiations with PKK for a political solution to the Kurdish autonomy issue. Kurds, who constitute 20 percent of Turkey's population, have been fighting for autonomy since the early 1980s. More than 40,000 people have died over the past decades. The 2013 ceasefire with PKK is now dead.
What is baffling is that Turkey has gone after PKK, despite the fact that Turkey, the US, and PKK are on the same side fighting IS.
 Turkish media has welcomed the attacks on PKK. However, when an outraged pro-Kurdish party organised a “peace march” in Istanbul, it was quickly banned by the police. Turkey evidently is concerned about PKK's strength and resilience in fighting ISIS. The fear is that if PKK can push back IS from Syria, it can try to establish its own autonomous territory in South East Turkey.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused the PKK for the killing of several Turkish policemen. On July 28 President Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey cannot continue the peace process with Kurds amid attacks by Kurdish militants on Turkish targets.
Ahmet Davutoglu explained that Turkey has come on board the coalition for two reasons: a) to eliminate criminal activities and threats on Turkish borders and establish an ISIL-free “safe zone” and b) to help 2 million refugees, currently in Turkey, return to their homeland, as it cannot carry the burden indefinitely. The humanitarian tragedy in war-torn Syria has to be stopped. In other words, non-Arab Sunni Turkey wants the Alawite (Shia) regime of Bashar Al-Assad and IS ousted from Syria.
 It is widely believed that President Erdogan's turnaround is linked to domestic politics. Erdogan was elected president in August 2014. Turkey held parliamentary elections in June 2015. Erdogan's Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP), with 258 seats, fell short of majority in the 550-seat House. A new government could not be formed, as no single party succeeded in getting the majority of 278 seats. No coalition has emerged either. The government of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, sworn in August 2014, continues. Since the parliament failed to produce a new government, President Erdogan can legally call for fresh elections.
There is another angle – the Pro-Kurdish party, People's Democratic Party (HDP), entered the parliament for the first time in June 2015, with 13 percent of the votes (82 seats). If, at the next elections, HDP can be pushed below the required 10 percent threshold, the HDP will cease to be represented in the parliament.
Erdogan hopes that his hard-line policy towards ISIS and the Kurds will raise AKP's popularity in the next elections. Erdogan will show that he is determined to crush terrorism in Turkey. The redoubtable Erdogan has always wanted to amend the constitution and introduce a presidential type of government with more powers. To change the constitution, he requires two-third majority in the parliament, which he was denied in the last election. Many predict that Erdogan is planning to call for fresh parliamentary elections in November 2015.

However, the US welcomed Turkey's decision and NATO provided strong backing to Turkey's war on terrorism. Turkey's entry into the fray will undoubtedly give a new complexion to the US-led alliance but will also strengthen the coalition air power against IS. However, to defeat IS, the coalition will have to put boots on the ground.

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