On July 20th, a suicide bomber killed 32 young activists at a Kurdish cultural center in the town of Suruc near the Turkish- Syrian border. A few days later, president Erdogan granted the U.S. permission to use the giant NATO airbase at Incirlik for air strikes against ISIS, blamed for the attack.
Since the decision was not a spur of the moment one, but followed moths of negotiations with the U.S. as well as a general shift in Turkey’s evaluation of the threat posed by ISIS, the suicide bombing may well have been a message to Ankara that Turkish involvement in the fight against ISIS will not go unchallenged.
According to Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute:
“ISIS and Turkey had a nearly two-year-long Cold War in which they avoided fighting, with the knowledge that their confrontation would lead to destruction on both sides”
Turkeys fears of a backlash may be the reason that it has until now stayed out of the anti-ISIS coalition. The cost versus benefit has started to change thinking in Ankara however: Turkey may not be able to afford looking after the 2 million or so refugees already in the country, which has cost Turkey some $16.5bn in spending on refugees and lost export and tourism revenues according to the Republican People’s Party.
As part of the Incirlik arrangement, Turkey will join the U.S. in airstrikes against ISIS. One immediate objective appears to be the creation of a 65 mile wide, 20-30 mile deep “ISIS free zone” along the Syrian side of the border. This may facilitate the return of Syrian refugees, as well as provide a staging ground for anti-ISIS ground forces supported by the U.S. and Turkey.
The problem with Turkey’s ISIS engagement is that it may hamper efforts at regional stabilization. Turkey has used the anti-ISIS airstrikes to bomb Kurdish PKK positions accross the border in Syria, hurting the Kurds ability to deal with ISIS and Assad forces. This marks the end of the peace process with the Kurds that Erdogan had been negotiating since 2011.
The result may well be reprisals against the Turkish troops, government, civilians and infrastructure by both ISIS and the Kurds. Turkey may ultimately pay a much higher cost by choosing the military option over diplomatic resolutions.