Turkish Border With Syria Open To ISIS But Closed To Kurds

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Turkey has finally closed parts of its border with Syria to fighters seeking to cross over. Yet, the only parts of the border that it has seemed to close are in those places where Kurds, some refugees from Syria, are seeking to cross over and join the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).

At the same time, it has not stopped any jihadists seeking to fight alongside the Islamic State. 

Meanwhile over 100,000 refugees are now estimated to have flooded across the border from Syria into Turkey. Numbers have risen dramatically following the Islamic State's latest advance. 

Since last Tuesday, Islamic State fighters have surged across northern Syria towards the Kurdish town of Kobani, beating back units of the YPG, the Kurdish defense units in the area. By Sunday the Islamic State had advanced to within 10 kilometers (6 miles) of Kobane.

The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) on Monday called on all Kurds in Turkey to join the war and travel with all possible speed to Kobani to confront the Islamic State. A statement on the group's website said:

"Turkey's mostly Kurdish Southeast must rise up and rush to save Kobane. Supporting this heroic resistance is not just a debt of honor of the Kurds but all Middle Eastern peoples. Just giving support is not enough; the norm must be taking part in the resistance. ISIL fascism must drown in the blood it spills … The youth of Northern Kurdistan [southeast Turkey] must flow in waves to Kobane."

There were reports that 3,000 PKK fighters from Kurdish Iraq crossed over into Syria to join the defense of Kobane

Yet, those attempting to cross from Turkey were met with tear gas and water cannons. Turkish security forces refused to let them pass over the crossing into Syria, prompting clashes with the crowds of angry young Kurds attempting to join the militias defending Kobane.  

Turkey is worried about the prospect of an armed PKK causing trouble domestically. They fear that a stronger PKK could re-ignite the 30-year conflict between Turkey and the separatist group. The Kurds are currently split between Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, but the widening war has enabled Kurdish forces to gain full control of Kurdish areas, which may lead to increased calls for an independent state.

This is something that Turkey fundamentally opposes. But Kurds believe that it goes further than that. A Kurdish PKK leader, Dursan Kalkan, accused Turkey of collaborating with the Islamic State.  Another Kurdish  leader, Zubeyde Zumrut, said at a political rally on Sunday that "ISIS equals AKP and AKP equals ISIS." The Islamist AKP is the ruling party in Turkey.

Turkey has been conspicuously reluctant to join the international coalition against the Islamic State. Tayyip Recep Erdogan, Turkey's Islamist prime minister has been very clear that Turkey will not participate in military action against the Islamic State, nor will he allow Turkish airbases to be used to launch bombing raids against the group. He left the door slightly open, however, to 0ther, as yet non-specific, forms of cooperation.

Turkey's border with Syria has been porous for some time. Turkey has long been an established route for recruits, supplies and arms travelling to various opposition groups in Syria. The Islamic State is estimated to be earning $15 million a month or more exporting smuggled oil to Turkey.

According to Kurdish media, there are some 2,000 Turks currently fighting for the Islamic State (the exact number is unknown).  In January, Turkish police stopped a truck suspected of transferring weapons to Syria. The officers responsible were almost immediately moved to other posts.

The extent of the failure of Turkey to fight the Islamic State led one Turkish columnist to comment, "If the recent discourse of its decision-makers is scrutinized closely, one may reach the conclusion that the ruling Islamist government of Turkey is more distanced from its NATO allies than from IS."

Last Saturday, 46 Turkish hostages that had been held by the Islamic State since the fall of Mosul in early June were released back into Turkish control. The Turkish government refused to disclose how it negotiated the hostages' release.

A Turkish news website argued that the negotiations, described by Erdogan as a "diplomatic victory," constituted an indirect recognition of the Islamic State's caliphate as a state entity and was a quid pro quo for Turkey staying out of the American led-coalition against ISIS. It also reported that the order to release the hostages had come directly from the caliph himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The fact that Turkey has closed its border to Kurds seeking to fight against the Islamic State while leaving the border so open for so long to those supportive of the jihadists is further evidence that Turkey has no willingness to seriously combat the Islamic State, in particular, or jihadi groups, in general. 

To learn more about the ideology and history behind the ISIS caliphate, see Clrion Project's factsheet: The Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL).


Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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