ISTANBUL / ANKARA: A suspected ISIS suicide bombing that killed 32 people in a Turkish border town is unlikely to push Ankara to strike against the group in Syria, where it still sees Kurdish separatism and President Bashar Assad as the major threats.
Turkey has been a reluctant partner in a U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS, refusing a front-line role in military action and arguing only Assad’s ouster – not just airstrikes on the radical Islamists – can bring peace.
It is believed to favor some less-radical Islamists who vie with ISIS.
Ankara fears advances by Kurdish militia fighters, who now control the majority of the Syrian side of the border, will fuel separatist sentiment among its own Kurdish minority, potentially reigniting a festering three-decade insurgency. U.S. air support for the Kurds is viewed with deep suspicion.
“It’s not appropriate to expect changes to Turkey’s Syria policy,” one senior official told Reuters after Monday’s bombing in the border town of Suruc, the worst attack of its kind in Turkey since ISIS seized parts of Syria and Iraq.
Ankara sees ISIS virtually as a child of Assad, whom Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan considered an ally until their acrimonious falling-out over the unfolding insurrection.
“Turkey has always said Assad should go,” the official said. “We have proof Assad supports [ISIS] ... We cannot change our stance against this coordinating structure.”
Turkey’s stance has frustrated some of its NATO allies, including the United States, whose priority is fighting ISIS rather than Assad, and who have urged Turkey to do more to prevent its 900-km Syrian border being used as a conduit by foreign extremists.
The U.S. Air Force has not been allowed to fly any bombing sorties against ISIS from its Incirlik base in southern Turkey; but it does use the airfield to launch drones.
Ankara has sent additional troops and equipment to the border in recent weeks as fighting between the Kurds and the radical insurgents intensified. Intervention, however, would be considered only if national security were threatened.
Judging by the response from officials in Ankara, Monday’s bombing, which tore through a group of Turkish and Kurdish students planning an aid trip to the Syrian Kurdish town of Ain al-Arab, did not amount to such a threat.
In any case, Erdogan’s generals would seem reluctant to obey the call, if it came.
Senior government officials have said privately that the Turkish army, the second biggest force in NATO, is strongly opposed to any unilateral intervention in Syria, whether limited incursions or the creation of a “buffer zone.”
“Turkey has taken the necessary precautions ... There is a serious military presence on the border, but it is impossible to control every inch. At most we could send more soldiers and tanks,” the senior government official said.
Some parts of the Turkish media have questioned whether Suruc marked an attack against Turkish interests – raising the threat of more strikes across the country – or simply a spillover from the conflict between Kurds and ISIS in Syria.
Turkey has nonetheless intensified its efforts to break up ISIS networks on its own territory.
Officials say some 500 people have been detained since the start of the year on suspicion of links with ISIS, while 29 people believed to have helped smuggle Europeans to Syria and Iraq have been detained in Istanbul this month alone.
Ain al-Arab, where the students attacked Monday had hoped to build a library and plant trees, has been a rallying point for Turkey’s Kurds, many of whom suspect Ankara of covertly backing the Islamist insurgents against their brethren in Syria.
Turkey sees the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria as closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group whose fight with the Turkish state has killed 40,000 people since 1984. Fears linger that the armed rebellion could be reignited, threatening again the fabric of the Turkish state.
Ankara has expressed concern to the United States about advances made by the YPG.
“We were not safe when there was [ISIS on the border], and we are not safe when there is PYD,” a second senior official said, speaking before Monday’s bombing in Suruc.
“[ISIS] is a terrorist organization, there is no doubt about that.
“We will be pleased if they’re away from our border.
“But if the group replacing them pushes only for its own agenda we will not be pleased by this either.”
Senior officials in the ruling AK Party have warned against what they see as Kurdish efforts toward “demographic change” – a move toward creation of a Kurdish state in parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu strenuously denied Turkey had ever tacitly supported ISIS but gave no hints of a change in policy in Syria.
“The AKP [AK Party] has zero intention of changing its policy toward Syria or its foreign policy in general,” said Aaron Stein, an Atlantic Council fellow who specializes in Turkey and Syria.
“What Turkey is trying to do in Syria is unite the Islamist insurgency ... to attack the regime and create a very strong counterweight to ISIS,” he said.
“They are not friends of ISIS but they are friendly with Islamists.”