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Turkey Seeks To Prevent Kurdish Autonomy, Not Fight IS, Analysts Suggest

  • Joanna Paraszczuk

A Turkish F-16 fighter jet takes off from Incirlik air base in the southern city of Adana.

A Turkish F-16 fighter jet takes off from Incirlik air base in the southern city of Adana.

Plans by Turkey and the United States to create an "Islamic State-free zone" in northern Syria along the Turkish border will serve Ankara's aims of stopping Kurdish militias from advancing in the area, analysts and Kurdish political leaders say.

The plan follows significant gains by the Kurdish People's Protection Units militia (YPG) against the IS militant group in northern Syria.

Last month, the YPG seized Tal Abyad, a key IS-held town, with the assistance of U.S. air strikes and Syrian Arab fighters. In doing so, the YPG cut off a major IS supply route but prompted thousands of Syrians to flee across the border to Turkey. On July 27, the YPG captured another town from IS, Sarrin near the Euphrates River, which IS fighters were using to launch attacks on Kobani close to the Turkish border.

The YPG's gains against IS have caused consternation bordering on hysteria in Ankara, which fears Kurdish autonomy.

After the capture of Tal Abyad, supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) cautioned that the Kurds were on their way to creating their own state in northern Syria. One headline even warned that the YPG was "more dangerous than IS," says Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish-affairs analyst based in Washington.

"Turkey thinks that the YPG's next move is to cross the Euphrates River and move to Jarablus," says Civiroglu, referring to an IS-occupied and predominantly Arab and Turkmen town on the west side of the Euphrates.

The YPG could then move further west and eventually link up the Kobani and Afrin "cantons," zones in northern and northeastern Syria that are under Kurdish control.

Kurdish control of more territory in the area would pose a "threat to Turkey's territorial autonomy," says Kubilay Yado Arin, a Kurdish scholar at Duke University.

"Turkey does not want an integrated autonomous Kurdish region" on its border, Arin adds.

Arin suggested the "safe zone" proposed by Turkey in northern Syria is a ploy by Ankara to bring thousands of Syrian refugees from Turkey into the area in an attempt to "divide Kurdish territory."

Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the Kurdish-majority Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey, also said that the "IS-free zone" proposed by Ankara was designed to prevent Kurds from forming their own territory in northern Syria.

Demirtas told the BBC on July 29 that Turkey's recent operations against IS were "a show." "Under the impression of battling IS, Kurdish forces are being targeted," Demirtas said.

Turkey launched air strikes against IS in Syria for the first time on July 24. But Ankara also targeted the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.

And on July 27, the YPG claimed that Turkish tanks had shelled their fighters near Kobani.

'No Strategy For Raqqa'

Other analysts have also questioned whether Ankara really wants to fight IS. Until recently, Turkey has come under intense criticism for its apparent inability to prevent IS recruits from crossing its border into Syria.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Kurdish analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, says that Ankara does not intend to fight IS but seeks to prevent the YPG taking Jarablus.

"Turkey's strategy is to contain IS and the YPG in Aleppo's countryside, they have no strategy at all for Raqqa [IS's de facto capital] or Hasaka [an IS-controlled town in northern Syria]," van Wilgenburg tells RFE/RL.

"If Turkey wants to defeat the Islamic State, they need to work on a strategy with the YPG for Raqqa," he adds.

Western Allies?

Duke University's Arin calls the YPG the U.S.-led coalition's "only reliable partner in the region" against IS.

"The U.S. has relied on Syrian Kurdish fighters affiliated with the PKK in making gains against IS," says Arin, noting recent comments by U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter that the United States has only trained 60 "moderate" Syrian rebels to fight IS.

Turkey's offensive against the PKK as well as plans to create an "IS-free zone" could harm the U.S.-led coalition's fight against IS, Arin believes.

Amid the plans to create the "IS-free zone" there are signs that the United States intends to continue supporting the Kurds against IS but may not actively assist them in taking Jarablus.

"In recent weeks, the U.S. has shifted its focus of bombing away from Jarablus and towards areas in North Aleppo. This is in addition to continued strikes near Raqqa," says Aaron Stein, a fellow at the Atlantic Council.

"This suggests that the U.S. will maintain its support for the Kurds but won't aid directly in their move across the Euphrates. This is a key Turkish demand and fits with the area being discussed as a potential ISIS free zone along the Mare [a town 25 kilometers north of Aleppo] -Jarablus line."

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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