Defeating ISIS at the Turkish border

Published 16.11.2015 02:07

The latest terrorist attack by ISIS in Paris has once again proved Turkey right in seeing the terrorist organization as a global threat and thus calling on the international community to unite to fight it

Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu visited Irbil on Nov. 5 to meet with Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani. The number one item on Mr. Sinirlioğlu's agenda was the development of a joint strategy against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and PKK, which both governments consider as threats to national security. Speaking at a public event, the foreign minister said, "We might make a move against ISIS over the next few days" to raise questions about a potential military operation in northern Syria.

The government maintains that PKK militants place the country's national security at risk. Encouraged by the Democratic Union Party's (PYD) advances in northern Syria, the PKK leadership ended a two-year cease-fire in July 2015 to target not only the Turkish security forces but also the civilian population of eastern and southeastern Turkey. In response to the PKK's return to violence, the Turkish Armed Forces and the Turkish National Police launched a comprehensive crackdown on terrorist networks inside the country on July 24. KRG authorities, likewise, are concerned about the PKK's efforts to fuel tensions in the region. President Barzani recently urged the organization's senior leadership to leave Northern Iraq. PKK and PYD militants have coerced rival groups and members of the Arab and Turkmen communities into leaving northern Syria, Amnesty International and other human rights watchdogs warn. At times, underlying tensions become clearly visible: On July 11, a peshmerga commander famously claimed that PKK militants "only create more problems for the peshmerga forces and the people of Sinjar."

According to security sources in the Turkish capital, the government has no plans at this time to conduct a military operation in northern Syria. Turkey, they argue, maintains that a safe zone must be established with moderate Syrian rebels, with U.S. support, replacing ISIS in Jarabulus. It was important, in this sense, that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently pledged to remove ISIS militants from the Turkish-Syrian border. Moving forward, it became clear that the allies had developed a two-pronged strategy to target the terrorist organization in Syria and Iraq: Six days after Mr. Sinirlioğlu's visit, peshmerga forces launched a ground offensive against ISIS positions near Mount Sinjar to liberate the area. Celebrating his troops' crucial victory, President Barzani notably said peshmerga forces alone had been involved in the operation. KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, in turn, thanked Turkey and the United States for their contributions in the form of supplies and military training, respectively. Government sources indicate that the Turkish Special Forces trained at least 2,300 peshmerga fighters in recent months.

The Sinjar operation cut off ISIS's Rakka-Mosul links. Some sources in Ankara indicate that Mosul would constitute the next step of the operation. It can now be presumed that the peshmerga forces might lean toward Mosul, where the support line with Raqqa is cut, and seize control of the city from ISIS.

As for the threats posed by ISIS and the PKK at the Turkish border, ISIS will be repelled to the south both in Northern Iraq and the Turkish border in the following days. The U.S. wants the inclusion of the PYD, which is listed as a terrorist organization and recognized as the Syrian wing of the PKK by Turkey, in the operation along with the Free Syrian Army and moderate Arabs. This is the main point causing a disagreement between the U.S. and Turkey. Even though the U.S. announced that it would not provide arms assistance to the PYD any longer, Ankara is still uneasy and does not favor the idea of supporting a terrorist organization while fighting another one.

Turkey has some reasonable grounds at this point. The weapons submitted to the PYD are used in PKK attacks targeting military officers in Turkey. Some U.S.-based weapons have been found in the PKK camps positioned in the Qandil Mountains. Besides, the PKK and PYD are at odds with Turkmens, Arabs and Kurds inclining to Barzani in the region. This tension might disturb the synergy of land units to be formed against ISIS.

The horrendous attack in Paris also demonstrates that the fight against ISIS has become an urgent matter. So, how can the land units that will be formed against ISIS in northern Syria and on the Turkish border be rendered more effective? The peshmerga forces proved their operation skills in Sinjar. In an operation that will be launched against ISIS on Turkey's Syria border, peshmerga forces can provide assistance to Free Syrian Army units instead of the PKK and PYD. This method was formerly implemented in Kobani in that Turkey contributed to saving Kobani from the ISIS siege by allowing the peshmerga forces to pass through Turkish territories. The strategy that worked out in Kobani might be implemented again. Meanwhile, it must be noted that the most effective way of fighting against ISIS is enabling stability in Syria as soon as possible. The paths to stability in Syria could be opened when Assad, the tyrant who is responsible for thousands of fatalities, leaves his seat.

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