Turkey’s New Syria Policy: Preventing Islamic State and Kurdish Expansion

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 19

A Turkish F-16 taking off for operations against the Islamic State (Source: Daily Sabah).

On June 16, the Kurdish militia group People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎—YPG) and its Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies captured the Islamic State-controlled Syrian town of Tal Abyad on the Turkish border (YPG Rojava, June 16). In addition, in May, a surprise offensive by the Islamic State threatened to cut off Arab Sunni rebels’ primary supply route from Turkey to Aleppo by capturing Sawran (al-Mashdar, June 1). These developments forced Turkey to work more closely with the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition in order to contain both the YPG and jihadist group by attempting to create an “Islamic State-free zone” along its border. Turkey’s goals are to prevent the creation of a viable autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria, and to save its favored Sunni rebel groups in Aleppo from the Islamic State. Turkey had already talked about creating such “safe havens” last October, but developments on the ground forced them to approach this more seriously (Anadolu Agency, October 16, 2014).

Changing Redlines: Kirkuk and Jarabulus

When the United States toppled the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003, Turkey was afraid that Iraqi Kurds would annex Iraq’s oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and use its oil to achieve independence. Now, however, Turkey is more afraid of the Syrian Kurds controlling the Syrian-Turkish border. As a result, the Turkish “red line” over Kirkuk has been replaced by a “red line” over Jarabulus, a Syrian town on the Turkish border at the heart of the proposed “safe haven.” Furthermore, Turkey has also expressed its worries about Turkmen, a Turkic-origin ethnic group, in Syria, just as it has expressed its concern about Turkmen in Kirkuk.

Turkey had already expressed its opposition towards the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat—PYD) after its armed wing, the YPG, captured the majority of Kurdish-majority territories in Syria in July 2012. For instance, the advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Yalcin Akdogan, wrote that new Qandils in northern Syria cannot be permitted, a reference to the Kurdistan Workers Party’s (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê—PKK) main bases in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq (Star Gazete [Istanbul], July 27, 2012). This underlines that for Turkey, there is no difference between the YPG, PYD or the PKK. However, Turkey also misread events in Syria, and thought that the Syrian government would fall soon; Turkey also thought that Syrian rebels could finish off YPG afterwards.

Although Turkey saw the PYD as a threat, it did not interfere directly. Unlike in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish areas in Syria do not form a homogenous Kurdish-majority bloc, but are interspersed by mixed areas also inhabited by Arabs and Turkmen. The goal of the YPG is, however, to connect the three local administrations in the three Kurdish enclaves (Efrin, Kobane and Hasakah), and to create a contiguous Kurdish-controlled region (Al-Monitor, November 24, 2013). In 2013, however, this seemed an unlikely prospect, and Turkey was confident the YPG could not beat rival militant groups and successfully link these territories. However, this changed in September 2014, when the YPG became one of the main beneficiaries of Western airstrikes against the Islamic State, notably after the jihadists besieged Kobane, another Kurdish-majority town on the Syrian-Iraqi border.

YPG Advances Raise Alarm in Turkey

As a result of the above, Turkey was shocked when the YPG took the town of Tal Abyad in June, leading its government to conclude that ignoring Islamic State-controlled areas on Syria’s Turkish border would enable the Kurds to take more territory. Among other things, Turkey was afraid that the YPG’s fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq would increase their legitimacy, along with that of the PKK (Daily Sabah, September 12).

Furthermore, some circles in Turkey and even in Iran are afraid that the YPG, with the support of Western anti-Islamic State airstrikes, could create a corridor to the Mediterranean Sea (Yenisafak, July 16). Although, this seems far-fetched (Daily Sabah, June 25). Access to the sea would mean that the Kurds were not longer landlocked and would no long be forced to work with their neighbors. For instance, in July, pro-Turkish government newspaper columnist Kemal Ozturk wrote:

[The] PYD wants to disintegrate the Syrian lands, which are placed throughout Turkey’s northern borders, and establish an independent region that has a connection with the sea. This region, which will cut Turkey’s connection with Syria and will be completely established out of Kurds, is also a candidate for transferring the Kurdish petrol in Northern Iraq (Yenisafak, July 18).

In order to prevent the YPG from taking more Islamic State-controlled territory with Western air support, Turkey decided to bolster its ties with the United States, and to attempt to create an Islamic State-free “safe zone” with Turkmen proxy groups and other groups, such as the mainly Arab Islamist militant Ahrar al-Sham organization. YPG’s central commander in Efrin, Sipan Hemo, said “They just want to use Turcoman [Turkmen] as an excuse to establish a buffer zone around Jarabulus and prevent the unification of Kobane and Afrin cantons,” (Civiroglu, August 4).

Accordingly, in the beginning of July, Turkey and the United States discussed a deal to allow the latter to use Turkish air bases to conduct operations against the Islamic State, which Turkey had previously refused (Daily Sabah, July 8). Turkey also made clear to the United States that they would not allow YPG to cross into Jarabulus, part of its intended “safe haven” (Yeni Safak, July 4).

Turkey Moves Against Islamic State, PKK and YPG

On July 20, a suspected Islamic State attack killed at least 32 people, mainly young Kurdish activists, in Suruc in eastern Turkey at an event for the rebuilding of Kobane (Anadolu Agency, July 23). The aim of the IS-attack was most likely to create conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government. The Islamic State’s online magazine Dabiq, in mid-2015, also predicted an end of the peace between PKK and Turkey, and said this would further weaken the PKK in Syria, which is already facing recruitment problems. [1] Since the YPG is increasingly dependent on Kurdish volunteers from Turkey, a war between PKK and Turkey could create a manpower problem for the YPG in Syria. [2]

In response to the Suruc bombing, the PKK killed two Turkish policemen in revenge, blaming the government for the Islamic State’s attack; the PKK, including senior leaders such as Cemil Bayik, have often accused Turkey of supporting the jihadist organization against the YPG (Hawar News, 21 June, 2015). Furthermore, a Turkish officer was killed in Kilis on July 23, by fire from Islamic State forces near the border, (Anadolu Agency, July 23).

Turkey responded by targeting the YPG, PKK and the Islamic State. It first targeted the YPG twice in the Syrian village of Zormikhar, close to Jarabulus, with heavy tank fire on July 24, and in the village of Tal Findere, as a warning to the YPG not to cross the river into Jarabulus (YPG Rojava, July 27). Furthermore, Turkey launched airstrikes against mostly PKK targets in northern Iraq, and also against a much smaller number of Islamic State targets (Daily Sabah, July 24). This has restarted the war between the PKK and Turkey, ending a ceasefire that had been in place since 2012, as predicted by the Islamic State.

Following the Turkish airstrikes, the Syrian Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, on August 11, expressed support for a Turkish safe zone and Turkish operations against the PKK, while fighters from al-Qaeda’s official affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra also withdrew from their frontline positions facing the Islamic State (Daily Sabah, August 11). This was followed by the Islamic State launching assaults on Marea, and issuing statements targeting Turkey (Today’s Zaman, August 11; Daily Sabah, September 10). Fighting increased between the Islamic State and opposing rebel groups in the countryside of Aleppo, with coalition airstrikes supporting the anti-Islamic State rebels. However, all sides, including both a range of Islamist militias and the YPG, have presently reached a stalemate, making it unlikely the area between Azaz and Jarabulus will become a safe haven any time soon, meaning the Islamic State would remain in control of a border crossing with Turkey.


While Turkey initially calculated that Bashar al-Assad’s government would fall quickly, and that the PYD and YPG could not maintain their advances, a few years later, Assad is still in power, and the YPG has increased their territorial control. As a result, Turkey has started to play a bigger role in the anti-Islamic State coalition in order to prevent the YPG from gaining more legitimacy and territory in the war against the jihadist organization, and to protect its preferred Arab Islamist rebels’ supply lines from Aleppo to Turkey that are threatened by Islamic State advances. Turkey now hopes a future Islamic State-free safe haven in the vicinity of Jarabulus will prevent both YPG and the Islamic State from taking further advantage of the situation. As a result, more fighting between the Islamic State and rival rebel groups is likely in the coming months. Furthermore, the increasing urban warfare between the PKK and the Turkish state within Turkey will make it more difficult for the YPG to recruit Kurds from Turkey, which will limit their advances in Syria, including against the Islamic State.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a political analyst specializing in issues concerning Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey with a particular focus on Kurdish politics.


1. “Ramadan The Law of Allah or the Laws of Men,” Dabiq, Issue 10, https://jihadology.net/2015/07/13/al-%E1%B8%A5ayat-media-center-presents-a-new-issue-of-the-islamic-states-magazine-dabiq-10/.

2. The YPG official website shows that many of the recently killed YPG fighters are Kurds from Turkey. For instance, on July 13, the YPG announced the identities of 16 fallen YPG fighters, only two of whom were Kurds from Syria (YPG Rojava, July 13).