Turkey’s opening of Incirlik air base may lead to regional fallout

Turkey’s opening of Incirlik air base may lead to regional fallout

The opening of Turkey’s Incirlik airbase to the United States-led coalition will allow it to escalate its strikes against the Islamic State at the cost of jeopardizing fragile relationships with many of the conflict’s key players.

The Turkish intervention that many hoped would signal a breakthrough in the Syrian conflict has quickly proved a headache for the anti-Islamic State coalition.

While the opening of Turkey’s strategically located Incirlik airbase to coalition aircraft has greatly enhanced efforts to strike against Islamic State, the price appears to have been tacit approval of Ankara’s recently intensified war against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).

The Kurdish militant group has proven to be the most stalwart opposition to Islamic State forces, along with their closely aligned Syrian counterparts, the YPG. The paradoxical situation strains already fragile relationships.

The base’s strategic advantage is marred by other issues

Previously restricted to flying armed drones from Kuwait, the closer proximity to Islamic State-controlled territory offered by Incirlik airbase will allow the intensity, frequency and duration of airstrikes – especially in Syria – on Islamic State targets to increase.

The United States has exploited this geographical advantage to immediate effect: American F-16s from the detachment, newly relocated to Incirlik, flew their first manned missions over Syria this week, launching strikes against undisclosed Islamic State targets.

Already closely co-ordinating strikes with the YPG prior to being granted access to the airbase, this upgraded capability will deal a blow to Islamic State’s expansionist ambitions and help to consolidate Kurdish control over the swathes of Syria currently held by YPG militias.

It has become abundantly clear that despite Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s assurances underscoring Turkey’s commitment to combating Islamic State, Ankara’s chief priority remains combating the Northern Iraq-based PKK, long accepted by the Turkish government as a greater threat than jihadist groups.

Turkish officials have noted as much, and this attitude is reflected by the available figures and analysis: one Turkish source has calculated the number of Kurdish dead since late July in the hundreds, in comparison to the casualties inflicted on Islamic State by Turkish forces, which allegedly barely brush double figures.

Turkey’s double agenda could be a problem

Turkey’s seemingly bold decision to re-ignite its war with the PKK is a deliberate show of strength from a government that rules only with a tentative mandate. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AK Partesi (AKP) government was unable to secure a majority in Turkey’s June elections, and is currently locked in stalled coalition negotiations with the three other political parties represented in the Turkish parliament.

With snap elections the likeliest outcome from the continual stalemate, the sudden and intense resumption of hostilities with the PKK will prove favourable to the AKP in the event of a renewed ballot and may allow it to reclaim its majority.

Erdoğan’s party can capitalize on the discord an intensified Kurdish insurgency will generate amongst the Turkish public, and growing anger is likely to significantly damage the electoral prospects of the HDP, a leftist party sympathetic towards Turkey’s Kurds that significantly eroded the AKP’s share of the vote in June.

Likewise, the AKP will hope their choice to take an uncompromising stance on the PKK will restore the confidence of hardliners sceptical of the AKP-brokered peace process who abandoned Erdoğan for the far-right nationalist MHP at the polls.

Now, effectively endorsing strikes against the PKK in Iraq whilst actively supporting its sister organisations in Syria, US foreign policy will face fresh problems of perception in the region. It has not taken long for a hostile reaction to emerge; on August 10th, amidst a wave of political violence in Turkey, gunmen attacked the US Consulate in Istanbul’s upscale Sariyer district.

The radical leftist DHKP/C militant group, whose website condemns the United States as “the real terrorists” and the AKP government as “collaborators”, claimed responsibility; such narratives are likely to pervade as a result of perceived American duplicity. In turn, any American attempts to convey its sincerity by supporting the YPG would be met with protestations and displeasure by Ankara, which could ultimately retaliate by revoking the long-awaited American access to Incirlik.

Until the political deadlock in Turkey is resolved, relations and tensions will continue to fluctuate, hampering efforts for a consistent and protracted campaign against Islamic State.