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What's Turkey's Next Step In Fight Against ISIS?


This weekend Turkey managed to secure the release of 49 ISIS hostages, mostly Turkish diplomatic workers. Little is known about what kind of deal was made and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan won't release details. Today Secretary of State John Kerry said that Ankara had not committed to the coalition against ISIS because Turkey first needed to deal with that hostage situation.

Joining me now to talk more about Turkey's policies toward the Islamic State is Soner Cagaptay, who is with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Welcome to the program.

SONER CAGAPTAY: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: First - what do you think? With Turkish hostages free, do you think we'll see a robust Turkish government role against ISIS now?

CAGAPTAY: We'll see increased further Turkish commitment to the front against ISIS, but I think Turkey will probably want to stay in the backdrop, as it has done for a while now, with the Kurds and supporting U.S. operations through logistics and intelligence operations, but not taking part in actual combat and airstrikes.

SIEGEL: OK. Let's talk about Turkey and the Kurds - and boy, is this complicated. There are Kurds in Turkey who for years fought against the Turkish government. There are Kurds in Iraq, some of whom took refuge from Saddam Hussein in Turkey and whose autonomous part of Iraq now does a lot of business with Turkey. And as we're now reminded, there are Kurds in Syria who are seeking refuge in Turkey in droves. Are they three different relationships?

CAGAPTAY: To a large extent, all of these relationships - the way you've described them - have been transformed because of the (unintelligible) and specifically because of what's going on in Syria. If we had this conversation two or three years ago, the question would be, why do Turks and Kurds hate each other? Is Turkey going to invade Kurdistan?

Today the question is, do the Kurds want to become part of Turkey? That's a new pivot by the Kurds, driven by the broad insecurity in Iraq and Syria that they're facing, from sectarian warfare, to civil war, to the threat of ISIS. So the Kurds are realizing that Turkey is their best regional defender.

SIEGEL: How does the Turkish government answer the question of, you know, you were presiding over an open border when jihadists and everybody else were streaming through Turkey into Syria and now when people want to go into Syria to defend their brother Kurds against ISIS, suddenly the border is closed. What's their answer to that?

CAGAPTAY: Their answer is that they - to the extent that Turkey realizes that it - the Kurds have become its best allies and proxies in the region, it still has not come to a full closure with the PKK and so...

SIEGEL: The PKK is the Turkish Kurdish insurgency.

CAGAPTAY: ...Right - Turkish Kurdish organization. It feels threatened and it kind of takes a step back and says, wait a minute, slow down.

I think this is what we saw over the weekend. Not that this was a Kurdish-controlled entity, but it was a PKK-controlled entity. So the people in Ankara said do we really want to do this? Do we want to have the PKK control a little state across from our borders? They said no and then they - so the Kurds on the border protesting on both sides, wanting the border to be opened up. And then they realized that maybe it is in their best interest. Even if this is a PKK-run entity, it is still a Kurdish-run entity, which is much better than an ISIS-run entity.

SIEGEL: It is stunning to think that at this point, guerrillas of the PKK - the resistance movement of Kurds from Turkey who have enclaves across the border in Syria - that Turkey, who has been fighting these people for decades, now regards them as, in effect, their surrogates and allies in what's going on in Iraq and Syria.

CAGAPTAY: Not only is the Turkish relationship with Syrian and Iraqi Kurds has improved, but also Turkey's own relation with its own Kurds has improved. I think that's the missing part of the puzzle we haven't looked at yet. Turkish Kurds, of course, will always want to obtain some sort of political autonomy from the central government at the same time that the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds will gravitate towards Ankara. I think these are going to be the opposing countervailing trends among Kurds in the region. But overall, they'll be closer to Turkey - the Kurds in the region - than they are to any other national government.

SIEGEL: Soner Cagaptay, thank you very much for talking with us.

CAGAPTAY: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.