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Between ISIL and the Kurds: Where Will Erdogan Go

The explosion of July 20 outside of the Amara Cultural Center in the Turkish town of Suruc marks a turning point in ISIL-Turkish relations. The suicide attack killed 31 youth, mostly Kurds, gathering in the beginning of their journey to Kobani carrying aid to reconstruct the city. ISIL-Turkish relations soured lately due to what the organization perceives as a change in Ankara’s policy of turning a blind eye to its activities.  

Indeed, Turkey is finally changing its position on ISIL. The change came after obtaining clear commitments from the US to oppose any drive by the Kurds to establish an independent state in Syria so long as this nation remain one. On July 7, a large US delegation which included Undersecretary of Defense Christine Wormuth, Special Presidential Envoy Gen. John Allen and military and intelligence officials, visited Ankara and met with high-level Turkish officials from the Foreign Ministry, Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the National Intelligence Organization (MİT). The meeting which lasted for two days witnessed “very frank” exchange of views on Turkey’s role in Syria and Iraq and its position on ISIL.

The consequences of the deals reached in the meeting did not take long to appear on the ground. Just one week after the conclusion of the meeting, Turkish authorities started a sweeping crack down on ISIL active cells in Turkey. Ankara blocked web sites belonging to ISIL, launched a raid across the country to arrest suspect members in the organization and tightened its measures to stop the flow of new recruits through its southern borders. And Turkey may have allowed the US to fly its drones from Incirlik air base. ISIL responded by posting an open threat to Turkish authorities on one of its web sites. However, the verbal response to the Turkish crackdown was measured. The real response came later in the mainly Kurdish Suruc. Yet, it was directed against the Kurds.

Turkish intelligence has enough channels with ISIL to investigate the attack. It will not take time before we know from actions on the ground the conclusion of this investigation. Either ISIL denies that the operation was ordered by its senior leaders and promises to punish the perpetrators, or it is, hopefully, an open confrontation between the two sides.

If it is a war, still unlikely however, it will be costly for both sides. ISIL infiltrated the border region of Turkey with scores of networks and members ruining all kinds of logistical operations: Smuggling new recruits, selling oil, laundering money, sending arms and ammunitions to Syria and gathering information. If Turkish authorities clean the region of ISIL presence, that will represent an important setback for the organization.

Yet, ISIL will not set idle while its wings in Turkey are being broken one after the other. The choices of Erdogan will be determinant to the abilities of ISIL in the North of Syria.

The troubles of the Turks with ISIL are not comparable, of course, with their troubles with the Kurds. Erdogan’s game has always been based on using ISIL to abort any Kurdish attempt to expand their presence in North Syria and doing his best to convince the Kurds to fight Bashar Al Assad. After the US effort to interrupt the first half of the equation, that which is related to Erdogan’s Kurdish concerns, a regional players is trying now to interrupt the second half, that which is related to the anti-Assad effort.

Some unconfirmed reports point to recent contacts between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan-Syria (PUK) and the YPG (People’s Protection Units) which is affiliated to the PKK. The YPG is very active in North Syria. The content of the recent meetings was said to be the future of North Syria and a plan to open channels of contacts between the YPG and Tehran. The PUK is known as an extension of a similar Iraqi entity. The PUK in Iraq is known for its strong ties with the Iranians since its members found refuge in Iran during their fight against Saddam Hussein.

The Iranian proposal conveyed by the PUK to the YPG was allegedly made in Sulaymaniyah between some leaders of the PUK and representatives of the Iranian IRGC sometime late June. The content of the proposal is to coordinate with Assad forces in the North of Syria in return for giving Syria’s Kurds all the support that could be given by the Syrian regime under the circumstances. A promise of an autonomous region in future Syria and of PUK assistance was also given on behalf of Tehran, Assad and the leadership of the PUK. We cannot confirm this information as it could not be verified by independent sources. We were left only with events on the ground to provide any evidence that such a deal was indeed conveyed.

A series of developments which took place after the meeting shed some light on what happened after the alleged meeting. In a first instance, the YPG turned against the Arab Syrian opposition that was fighting with the Kurds in Kobani. Units of the Free Syrian Army in Kobani were told last week by YPG to leave the town immediately.

Another development followed few days later, when both the YPG and Assad forces fought side by side in Hasakah. An officer in the Syrian regime’s forces told AFP that they coordinated their attacks on ISIL positions with the YPG. “The Kurds wouldn’t have been able to encircle the IS fighters without the weapons we gave them,” the officer told the news agency.

What was interesting in this news agency’s report, however, was the following particular part:

“Washington has insisted that the coalition, which began a campaign of air strikes in Syria in September 2014, will not coordinate with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But in reality, a YPG officer told AFP on condition of anonymity, “there is coordination on the flights between the Syrian army and the coalition forces. They communicate through a Kurdish mediator.”

It is not clear yet if there is something bigger even than coordination between the coalition air raids and Assad forces. Something like an Iranian dimension in the YPG coordination with Assad forces in Hasaka. But the truth will certainly come out at one point or another.

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