Syrian Kurds from Kobani wait behind the border fences to cross into Turkey, seen from the Turkish border town of Suruc, June 25, 2015. Murad Sezer
Murad Sezer / Reuters

Last week’s showdown between the Islamic State (also called ISIS) and Turkey, which left one Turkish soldier and one militant dead, has been marked in the West as the first direct Turkish military confrontation with the terrorist organization since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011.

Soon after the attack, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced that a subsequent military campaign, Operation Yalcin, which was named in honor of the killed soldier, would be “against all terrorist organizations.” His implication was that it would not be restricted to ISIS but could also target Turkey’s other foe, the PKK, the militant Kurdish pro-separatist organization. Although observers had expected such an escalation for some time, a number of factors played into Erdogan’s decision to go big now. It remains to be seen, though, whether his calculated risk will pay off in the form of greater security, more regional influence, and more power at home, or will backfire.

An armed man escorts others carrying the coffins of the victims of Monday's bomb attack in Suruc, during a funeral ceremony in Istanbul, Turkey, July 22, 2015.
An armed man escorts others carrying the coffins of the victims of Monday's bomb attack in Suruc, during a funeral ceremony in Istanbul, Turkey, July 22, 2015. 
Murad Sezer / Reuters

Ankara’s sudden activism comes after months of pressure from Washington. In the span of a week, Turkey has ramped up intelligence sharing and lifted restrictions on American jets flying from Turkey’s Incirlik military base to Syria. Turkey also called an emergency NATO meeting, which resulted in a show of solidarity for Turkey’s right to defend itself against terrorism but no agreement on next steps. Turkey proposed the creation of a no-fly zone around the Syrian border. Washington turned this plan down, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Barack Obama did agree to increase coordination with Turkey on U.S. air operations against ISIS and to continue to train vetted Syrian opposition fighters to support Turkey’s efforts.

Turkey’s desire to carve out safe zones in northern Syria is nothing new, but its political will to unilaterally turn the plans into realty is. Throughout the conflict, Turkey has argued that such zones are needed to defend its borders and to allow Syrian refugees to return home. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reiterated the idea last Saturday, when he said that, “once ISIS has been cleared from the areas, safety zones will form by themselves. Displaced people will be settled in these areas.” Ankara has ruled out deploying ground troops to support the operation, but Erdogan did affirm on Tuesday Turkey’s commitment to securing these areas. Although it is too early to see how far his promise extends beyond air strikes and special operations to assist the opposition, it is likely that Turkey will need to be prepared to confront Assad’s forces if they attack the safe zone or to potentially send in ground troops if the Syrian opposition can’t secure the area.

In the past six months, Erdogan’s political calculations shifted as ISIS escalated its rhetoric about establishing a “proper” caliphate back in Istanbul.
In part, Ankara's increased political will is a side effect of the recent elections, which Erdogan’s party won, but by a much smaller margin than ever before. As Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s prime minister, has gone about trying to form a new governing coalition, Erdogan’s calculations about what to do with the Kurds, who had a remarkably strong showing at the polls, have shifted. In the first years of his rule, Erdogan pursued peace with them, estimating that he could co-opt Turkey’s Kurdish self-determination movement by offering the community greater rights and recognition. But now the peace process has collapsed. The PKK has declared its former cease-fire dead and has escalated attacks on Turkish government targets in response to the Turkish military’s targeting of PKK bases in Iraq and its belief that the Turkish government may have collaborated with ISIS on the group’s most recent attack on the Turkish Kurdish community in Suruc. Shootouts this past Saturday in central Istanbul and southeastern Turkey left two police officials dead. With its patience wearing thin, Ankara has suspended the peace talks with Kurds for now.

The other factor behind Erdogan’s timing is his growing unease with ISIS. In the months after ISIS’ initial rise, Ankara seemed to conclude that the organization was just like any other opposition group in Syria—no better, no worse—and so it chose to prioritize Assad and the Kurds as the biggest threats to its own stability. Erdogan even complained that Western obsession with ISIS was rooted in Islamophobia and anti-Turkish bias. After all, he pointed out, the Western media chose to zero in on ISIS’ black market trade routes across Turkey’s borders rather than on the countries from which the fighters actually originated.

But in the past six months, Erdogan’s political calculations shifted as ISIS escalated its rhetoric about establishing a “proper” caliphate back in Istanbul. Such comments were particularly galling in the run-up to the national election, in which Erdogan was positioning his conservative Muslim party as a force for the democratic advancement of Turkey as an important regional power beyond its Ottoman legacy. Even worse was the suicide bombing by a Turkish ISIS recruit in the town of Suruc last week. The bombing, which killed over 30 people and injured hundreds more as they prepared to go to the Kurdish stronghold of Kobani in Syria, must have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

Boys hold pieces of metals from a crater crater caused by a Turkish air strike against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) camps in the village of Amadiya, outskirts of Dohuk province July 29, 2015.
Boys hold pieces of metals from a crater crater caused by a Turkish air strike against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) camps in the village of Amadiya, outskirts of Dohuk province July 29, 2015.
Ari Jalal / Reuters
Faced with a trio of threats—Assad, the Kurds, and ISIS—and the increasing spillover effects of the conflict, Erdogan apparently concluded that Turkish security could no longer be addressed without proactive action. To be sure, by opening a two-front war against the PKK and ISIS, Erdogan has marched into uncharted territory. And the operation is certainly going to strain Turkey’s military and security services, making it more dependent on U.S. assistance. In the coming months, both ISIS and the PKK could ramp up violence against the Turkish government, infrastructure, and civilians. If both groups escalate their attacks, it could tremendously harm Turkey’s economy as well.

At the same time, Erdogan’s political calculations may be harming his country’s relationship with Washington—and just when he needs U.S. support the most. Although Washington has backed the operations against ISIS, Obama doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Erdogan on his decision to strike the PKK, and Washington believes that the Kurdish communities in Syria and Iraq are useful partners in countering ISIS. Managing the strategic differences between the United States and Turkey will become harder if Ankara escalates too far in its campaign against the Kurdish communities south of its borders.

How all this will play out for Erdogan personally is even more uncertain. The president had previously been willing to gamble on peace with the Kurds. Now Turkey’s actions against the PKK and its strong rhetoric could undermine Kurdish unity both at home and regionally. That could create further domestic instability as Turkey’s considerable military might is put to the test against the battle-hardened terrorist groups that control stretches of Syria. At the same time, though, being able to demonstrate strong leadership while Turkey’s political parties bicker among themselves for power in coalition negotiations is a clear win for Erdogan and could make early national elections advantageous. Erdogan could use such an election to regain a majority of seats for his party and also, potentially, to secure a large enough share of seats in Parliament to move for his constitutional reforms to turn Turkey into a presidential system. In that sense, Erdogan has the most to gain and the most to lose from the country’s newest fight—and he’ll end up straining his relations with the United States no matter how it turns out.

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  • JOSHUA W. WALKER is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a former Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of State. ANDREW J. BOWEN is a Senior Fellow and Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest.

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