Erdogan's New Front Against Islamic State

The attack in Turkey that left 32 people dead has dramatically changed Ankara's position - Haaretz's Zvi Bar'el reports from the Turkey-Syria border.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media in front of a mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, July 24, 2015.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media in front of a mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, July 24, 2015. Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
KILIS, Turkey

KILIS, Turkey - At the Bab a-Salam border crossing between Turkey and Syria near the town of Kilis, no great excitement was registered after the Turkish air force struck against Islamic State positions in Syria for the first time over the weekend. A long line of Syrian refugees – men, women and children who wished to get into Syria - trailed under the merciless sun, waiting to make their case to the Turkish clerk in charge of issuing the entry permits.

"I heard there were explosions during the night, but I didn't see anything," Abed al-Haid said, while keeping a close watch on his little kids. "Who did they target? Who got hurt?" he wondered. At 3:15 A.M. on Friday, three F-16s bombed three targets within Syrian territory, in a town which official reports say is in the hands of Islamic State, the militant group also known as ISIS. "Our planes did not violate Syrian airspace," a Turkish military spokesperson clarified. "The bombings, which lasted 13 minutes, were from within Turkish airspace, near Kilis."

The Turkish military named this unusual operation "Yalcin Nane," after the Turkish non-commissioned officer killed in a cross-border firefight with ISIS militants. "Now, even the Turks are starting to feel the Syrian war. If the Daesh [the Arab acronym for ISIS] attacks along the border continue, the townspeople will start fleeing. Then, maybe, we refugees will have cheaper apartments to rent," hoped Mansour, a Syrian army deserter who fled to Kilis three years ago. He runs an improvised car wash in Kilis, and drives Syrian refugees to and from the border on the side. Mansour has many complaints against the town's Turkish residents, "who see us as a goldmine. An apartment that was let out for 50 Turkish liras before the war is now rented for 500 liras, and if you can't pay – they kick you out. They know there's no shortage of clients."

About 800 kilometers north of Kilis in the capital Ankara, the daily concerns of Mansour and of two million refugees like him who found asylum in Turkey were not at the top of the agenda for decision makers this week. The deadly suicide bombing at the Amara Culture Center in the city of Suruc near the border, which left 32 people dead, pitched Turkey for the first time against ISIS in its own territory.

But if at first it seemed that the bombing could be seen as an internal security issue, letting Turkey keep its policy of non-involvement in Syria, the cross-border gunfire incident that killed the Turkish soldier made it clear the war has stepped into Turkey's doorway. The national TV broadcasts increased public pressure, and the Turkish administration called an emergency meeting to make a new strategic decision – Turkey will from now on act according to its interests even in Syrian territory, and allow the international coalition, and especially U.S. army warplanes, to launch attacks against ISIS in Syria from its Incirlik air base.

Turkey climbed down from the fence, after first resolutely refusing any foreign aerial activity from its territory. Its initial refusal was intended to avoid two things: Making Turkey a target for ISIS and putting Turkey on a collision course with Iran, just when Turkish investors could be looking to Iran for lucrative new options. In return for its policy reversal, Turkey got the U.S. to agree to a limited no-fly zone near the border – a demand which the American administration has rejected until now.

Though the no-fly zone, which is about 100 kms long and between 30 and 50 kms deep, is relatively small, its establishment is a precedence which will commit the American and Turkish air forces to act jointly in Syrian territory against the Syrian regime's warplanes, should they violate the no-fly zone. The outspoken aim of the no-fly zone is to set up a neutral area to protect Syrian refugees from Syrian air force attacks, thus making it possible to erect refugee camps on the Syrian side of the border, stemming the flow of refugees into Turkey.

But the no-fly zone has another goal – preventing the Syrian Kurds from seizing the border area and setting up an autonomous district like the Kurdish region in Iraq. According to the official Turkish statement, Turkey is reserving the right to use artillery against what it terms "terror bases" which threaten its security. This definition includes bases of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey and is active in its territory. This decision was received with understanding by the U.S. after two police officers were killed in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, most likely by PKK agents.

At the same time, Turkish security forces launched a wide manhunt for ISIS operatives and PKK supporters inside Turkey. So far, 500 suspects have been arrested. According to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this was not a one-time crackdown but a prolonged operation. Some in Turkey estimated on Friday that the regime would use the campaign against ISIS as an excuse to arrest and harm opposition elements and tighten its control over the media. According to one forecast, the new campaign is meant to assist Erdogan's Justice and Development Party to bring about early elections after it lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 13 years in the June elections.

These political and military calculations are light-years away from Yusuf's concerns, who waited at the Kilis central bus station for a minibus to take him back home to the "Kilis 1" refugee camp. Yusuf, from the Syrian city of A-Azaz, which is controlled by the Free Syrian Army rebel group, used to teach psychology in the city of Aleppo. Now a day laborer, he's always on the lookout for a job to top off the stipend he receives from the Turkish government - 85 liras a month, or about 31 U.S. dollars.

"It's barely enough for cigarettes. We heard international organizations are also sending in aid, but by the time it gets to the camp the only thing that's left are empty bags," Yusuf said.

"In any case, we thank God for staying alive. I've seen everything already. I picked up my relatives' body parts in Azaz, we buried our loved ones in mass graves, we saw our houses demolished, we ran between whizzing bullets and escaped barrel bombs thrown at us by Syrian warplanes. Since I came to Turkey I haven't visited Azaz. I couldn't relive the memories."

However, he still gets some news from his home town. "A city of 35,000 has doubled in size. Residents of nearby villages, attacked by ISIS and the regime, fled to Azaz where it is relatively secure. The Free Syrian Army is running things. There are religious schools, clinics, and the residents live off their crops. But until there's a solution I'm not going back," he said.

Yusuf considers himself one of the lucky ones – he has a caravan, which is relatively cool. Adib, on the other hand, lives in a tent, where the temperature can reach 50 degrees Celsius. "These days I prefer to sleep outside, in public parks and yards," he explained, adding that he has to go back to the camp every few days – otherwise, he will lose his right for the state stipend. The 70-year-old Adib, his neck wrapped in a red checkered Keffiyeh, escaped the town of Kobani which was occupied by ISIS and then liberated by the Kurds. Adib has one regret: Losing his daughters' phone numbers.

"One is a doctor and the other is a pharmacist, and both of them live in Berlin. I don't know how to call them and they don't know my number, but I'm sure Allah will bring us together in the end."

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