Ankara's War

ANKARA/BERLIN | | tuerkei

ANKARA/BERLIN (Own report) - Berlin has reacted to Turkish air strikes on the "Islamic State" (IS) and the PKK, with both praise and sharp criticism. After several IS attacks on Turkish territory, Ankara halted its support for the IS last week and launched air strikes on the organization in northern Syria. For years, the West, including Berlin, had been benevolently observing how Ankara had been granting assistance to the IS - as an aspect of the war against the Bashar al Assad government in Syria. Ankara is now following the change of course, initiated last year by the West, when it declared war on IS. Berlin's sharp criticism of Turkish air strikes on PKK camps in northern Iraq must be seen in the context of Turkish plans to invade northern Syria, which would lead to a confrontation with Kurdish forces affiliated to the PKK. Germany clearly rejects such an invasion because either it would strengthen Ankara, which recently has been regularly opposing Berlin, or it would turn another EU-bordering country into a theater of armed conflict - between the Turkish armed forces and Kurdish units.

Support for Jihadists

For years, the Turkish government had been supporting the "Islamic State" (IS) - particularly by permitting the IS to use areas on the Turkish side of the border with Syria as bases of operations and by providing medical treatment to injured IS combatants in Turkish hospitals. Arms deliveries have also been repeatedly reported. According to reports, the IS helped finance itself by selling Syrian oil from territories under its occupation to Turkey via intermediaries. In its efforts to overthrow Bashar al Assad, Ankara also has been supporting other jihadist organizations, "such as the Al-Nusra Front, which it helped train and arm in cooperation with Saudi Arabia," according to Günter Seufert, an expert on Turkey at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).[1] The Al-Nusra Front is Al Qaeda's Syrian branch. Following the IS terror attack in Suruç on July 20, resulting in 32 dead and over 100 injured, and referring to the Turkish support for IS, German media wrote, "the spirits Erdoğan had evoked" have struck and turned against their former sponsor. This is not false, however, it does not go deep enough.

With Western Approval

Ankara had, in fact, been sponsoring jihadists in Syria up until 2014, however, not single-handedly. It was done with western - including German - knowledge and approval. Recently, it has been pointed out repeatedly that "the locations in Turkey, where IS was recruiting were known to the local population." The human rights activist Osman Süzen, for example, posed the question, "if the people know how these organizations work, where they meet and how they recruit, does the state not know it as well?"[2] The same rhetorical question could be raised to the German government, not only because, as revealed last year, Turkey is officially a "reconnaissance objective" of Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (BND).[3] One can assume that, since Bundeswehr units are stationed in south eastern Turkey, in Kahramanmaraş, they would also be involved in the common practice of reconnaissance of their area of operations. For years, German police and intelligence services have had under surveillance German jihadists leaving for Syria, usually with the aid of networks in Turkey. Despite its detailed knowledge of the jihadists' activities in Turkey, Berlin has never interfered in Ankara's support for IS until it joined the war against IS. In August 2012, the US DIA military intelligence agency bluntly explained, why various western governments have generously approved the Turkish-Saudi aid to IS. A "Salafist principality" in eastern Syria could help isolate the government in Damascus.[4]

Change of Course

With its current change of course in relationship to the IS, Turkey is ceding to western pressure. According to the SWP's expert Seufert, the West has had Ankara under pressure since last year - in other words, from about the time the West began to change course and prepare its war against IS. IS was beginning to get out of hand, no longer concentrating its war exclusively on the Assad government, but turning also against the West.[5] "The American and European governments" had been calling on Ankara already "since one and a half years" to follow suit and change course to take up arms against IS, Seufert reports.[6] This pressure finally brought results. Already a few weeks before the Suruç attack, Turkey had made arrests "not on the basis of attacks already committed, but of IS supporters." The Turkish army is now making reports "weekly ... how many people have been apprehended at the Syrian border." According to Seufert, "some people think that the recent attack" - in Suruç - "was an act of IS' revenge for this new Turkish policy." Berlin is explicitly praising Ankara's change of course in relation to IS. "It is important that also the countries of the region become engaged against the terror of IS," declared the German Minister of Defense, Ursula von der Leyen, last Friday, after Ankara had not only allowed US air strikes against IS from Turkish territory but flew its own attacks as well.[7]

The Turkish "Safe Area"

However, the German government is sharply criticizing the fact that, parallel to its attack on IS positions, the Turkish military was also bombarding PKK camps in northern Iraq. This has a complex background. For years, Ankara has wanted to establish a so-called safe area in northern Syria - allegedly seeking to protect the local population from attacks by Syrian government forces. In reality, however, Ankara was seeking to control a strip of Syrian territory 50 kilometers wide and at least 90 kilometers long north of Aleppo. This was supposed to prevent the establishment of a unified Kurdish speaking administrative area in northern Syria, which - under the circumstances - would be under the control of PKK-affiliated forces. In contrast to the conservative and cooperative northern Iraqi Kurdish government, the PKK-affiliated forces are not compliant with Turkey. Until recently, IS had prevented the establishment of a unified Kurdish area in northern Syria. Now, Ankara can no longer rely on IS to do the job - and felt compelled to act. The Turkish military reopened the war on the PKK - possibly in preparation for an invasion of Syria, as observers were again speculating recently. In this context, it was reported that insurgents also in the region of Aleppo and Idlib, are preparing to introduce a new currency - the Turkish lira.[8]

German Interests

An invasion of Syria by Turkish armed forces would be counter to German interests. If this would escalate unchecked, it would strengthen Ankara, which recently has been repeatedly in opposition to Berlin. ( reported.[9]) If, however, this should escalate, it would combine the Syrian war with a war opposing Turkish forces to Kurdish speaking units of various origins. It would also mean that - alongside Ukraine and several North African countries - another EU-bordering country would become embroiled in an armed conflict with unpredictable consequences. Following a telephone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on Sunday, Chancellor Merkel officially declared that Berlin would support Ankara in its "struggle against terrorism" but also called on the Turkish government to continue the "peace process" with Turkey's Kurdish speaking population.[10] This would in fact exclude air strikes on PKK positions in northern Iraq and an invasion of Syria. Merkel's demands are accentuating the conflict between Berlin and Ankara.

[1] Türkei-Experte: Wende Ankaras in der Syrienpolitik. 21.07.2015.
[2] Michael Martens: Explosive Stimmung. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 25.07.2015.
[3] Beifang im Netz. Der Spiegel 34/2014.
[4] See Vom Nutzen des Jihad (I), The Jihad's Usefulness (II) and A Salafist Principality.
[5] See Marching Toward Baghdad.
[6] Türkei-Experte: Wende Ankaras in der Syrienpolitik. 21.07.2015.
[7] Türkei bombardiert IS-Stellungen - und Lager der PKK. 25.07.2015.
[8] Mohammed al-Khatieb: Syria's opposition plans to replace Syrian pound with Turkish lira. 15.07.2015.
[9] See Islamisten als Partner and Berlin's Priorities.
[10] Merkel: Friedensgespräche mit Kurden fortsetzen. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 27.07.2015.