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International Politics

The Turkish Loadstone in the War Against ISIL

On July 23rd, the United States and Turkey announced that they had reached an agreement[1] on the use of Incirlik air base as well as Turkish participation in the campaign against the Islamic State. US officials called the agreement “a game changer”[2] and the Air Force immediately began operating armed drones out of the base in Southern Anatolia. Six F-16’s from Aviano, Italy soon followed. The use of Incirlik reduces the distance Coalition aircraft must travel from bases in Iraq or the Mediterranean Sea and increases the loiter time of aircraft which is critical in a fluid battlefield to strike the right targets. Meanwhile, Turkey celebrated by launching attacks on Kurdish YPG units in northern Syria[3]: units that are, in fact, our ally against ISIS.

The YPG units fighting against the Islamic State in Northern Syria are the armed branch of the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), which is a Kurdish political party in Syria that happens to be aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the PKK. The PKK is based in Turkey and responsible for a decades-long terrorism campaign that has killed hundreds of soldiers and civilians in their quest for independence. Their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was arrested and jailed in 1999 – just one week prior to my visit to Eastern Turkey. Meanwhile, Northern Iraq is run by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Massoud Barzani. While also seeking an independent Kurdistan, the KDP is not particularly friendly with the PKK/PYD – in fact, they are rivals for leadership of the Kurdish people.

It’s a complicated situation, no matter how you look at it.

What has the impact been in the six weeks since the deal was reached? How much of a “game changer” has it really been? Not much, according to the numbers. Using the press releases from the Combined Joint Task Force in charge of Operation Inherent Resolve, Common Sense has plotted the total number of strikes per week as well as the number and percentage of those strikes dedicated to the different areas of operation in Syria and Iraq.


In the four weeks prior to the US-Turkish agreement, Operation Inherent Resolve was launching an average of between 150 and 225 weekly strikes, with a trend to more strikes. There is variability from week to week depending on the tempo of combat operations and the target of opportunity that present themselves. Even after taking into account such variability, strikes in Northern Syria have fallen since the Turkish deal: from an average of 40% of strikes to an average of 27% of strikes.


Syria is the key theater in which this has occurred; over the same period, the percentage of strikes against Northern and Southern Iraq have remained steady while targeting of Central Iraq has increased substantially. Although it is true that Iraqi government forces and Hashed Shiite militias have been driving on Tuz, Bayji and clearing out the region around Samarra; it is just as possible that these offensives became possible because of Turkish opposition to a continuation of Coalition support for the YPG in northern Syria.


It seems likely that this is the case; and if so, the timing is atrocious. The precipitous fall in US air support for the YPG means that the Kurdish faction is unlikely to be able to continue their offensive against the Islamic State. Expanding from Kobani, the Peshmerga had driven ISIL out of Tal Abyad and Ain Issa. This offensive had practically severed the links to the jihadist forces besieging the strategic town of Al Hasakah and permitted the recapture of that city by a joint force of Kurdish and Syrian government troops. It was also driving the Islamic State back upon their de facto capital of Ar Raqqah, the fall of which would have been a major propaganda blow against Al Baghdadi’s forces.

Even more importantly, the relief of pressure will allow the Islamic State to reallocate personnel, equipment and supplies to other operations. One of these is the current offensive towards Marea, clearing out Syrian rebels from the Turkish border region north of Aleppo. This has a practical component, which is to secure the remaining section of a key supply chain; but it also has an ideological component as the town of Dabiq is located in this region. Dabiq is where the Islamic State believes the last battle will be fought against the armies of darkness. Yes, that last battle. Control of this town necessarily bolsters the morale of ISIL fighters and reinforces the message that they are favored of God.

Most importantly, it allows the Islamic State to reinforce the drive towards Damascus. They already have a foothold in the southern neighborhood of Qadam, where fighting has raged since earlier in the week. I’ve argued before[4] that the fall of Damascus to the Islamic State could be the catalyst that sets off a sweeping ideological and theological change in the Sunni Arab world. The capture of the capital of the very first Islamic Caliphate could be the proof many are seeking that Al Baghdadi’s group is truly God’s chosen instrument for restoring the glories of the Islamic Empire; it could bring about the realignment of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups with ISIL. Even worse, it could radicalize the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, who are theologically kissing cousins with the extreme Salafism of the Islamic State.

That truly would be a game changer.

Common Sense will continue to track and report on these trends, but for the moment, the addition of Turkey to Operation Inherent Resolve appears more like a lodestone around our necks than anything beneficial.

Sources and Notes

[1] Liz Sly and Karen DeYoung, “Turkey agrees to allow U.S. military to use its base to attack Islamic State,” The Washington Post, 23 July 2015

[2] Ishaan Tharoor, “This Turkish base could be a game-changer in the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State,” The Washington Post, 24 July 2015

[3] “Syrian Kurds accuse Turkey of attacking their forces,” BBC, 27 July 2015

[4] Fernando Betancor, “Outside the Box: Can the Islamic State Actually Win?” Common Sense, 12 June 2015 and Fernando Betancor, “Outside the Box: How Close is the Islamic State to Victory?” Common Sense, 04 September 2015

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