ISIL really ought to be on the brink of obliteration now that Turkey has finally joined the battle against it. The terrorist group is in armed conflict with almost all other parties: the US and other Nato powers; Iran and its Shiite militia allies including Hizbollah; Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states; the Syrian regime; the Syrian rebels; Kurds in both Syria and Iraq and now Turkey. Yet, despite facing this extraordinary array of power, ISIL manages to hang on, and in some cases even expand. And no one can say with any confidence when or how it will be defeated.
How can that possibly be? It is because none of its enemies considers defeating ISIL its paramount priority. All of those listed above have at least one other enemy or goal that it firmly believes is more important. Hence a band of terrorist maniacs – who seem almost as suicidal as they are homicidal – is surviving armed conflict with everyone else simultaneously. The prioritising of something or someone else constantly holds these parties back from fully attacking ISIL or provides it with some kind of backdoor out of calamity. Turkey is a perfect example.
For months, Turkey and ISIL have been eyeing each other warily across the Syrian border. Those days are over. Last Monday, 32 civilians were killed when the Turkish town of Suruc was attacked by an ISIL suicide bomber from Syria.
On Friday and Saturday Turkish F-16 jets bombed ISIL positions in Syria. The Turkish government claims at least 35 extremists were killed, although Syrian sources say the real figure is closer to nine. Turkey has also agreed to allow the American military to use Turkish airbases to launch attacks against ISIL positions in Syria. From now on, and at last, Turkey will be a part of the coalition, formal and informal, actively fighting ISIL in Syria.
But the big picture is far more murky. In recent months, most of the world applauded as Kurdish militias operating under the banner of the “Kurdish People’s Protection Units” (YPG) have driven ISIL forces back across a large patch of territory along the Turkish border. Turkey, however, has been increasingly alarmed.
The ISIL attack on southern Turkey was spillover from the fighting in northern Syria. Suruc is a largely Kurdish city. But the YPG is strongly tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which until 2013 waged a bloody battle against the Turkish state for decades. Numerous peace efforts have failed to lead to a permanent reconciliation between Ankara and the PKK, so Turkey feels threatened by the Kurdish advance along its southern border with Syria.
Turkey has pledged to establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria, under the rubric of its intervention against ISIL. But one of its primary aims will be to deny the YPG control of a large, contiguous area across the soft Turkish underbelly near its own restive Kurdish areas. In particular, Turkey will be seeking to ensure that the two already- established Kurdish enclaves – the first around Afrin in the west, and the second starting near Kobani in the centre and stretching all the way to the far east of Syria – are not united to provide a Kurdish-dominated strip along the entire border.
In effect, Turkey had been relying on ISIL to deny this to the PKK by holding the territory between the enclaves. Not only is ISIL attacking inside Turkey now, perhaps even more significantly it is failing to prevent the PKK, Ankara’s main enemy, from expanding into that area. Turkey is therefore preparing to push ISIL aside and do the job itself.
Rhetoric notwithstanding, ISIL is not Turkey’s main target. The PKK is. ISIL is a secondary, albeit serious, concern for Ankara. But this will ensure that, time and again, Turkey’s efforts are not and cannot be primarily focused on defeating ISIL because it has a different priority. Indeed, Turkey launched its first new attacks since 2013 on PKK positions in northern Iraq at the same time it began bombing ISIL in Syria.
All of ISIL’s other enemies have their own alternate priorities.
Saudi Arabia is focused on thwarting Iran and its proxies. Iran is trying to keep Bashar Al Assad in power. Mr Al Assad is fixated on the Syrian rebels. The rebels are focused on overthrowing him. Kurds seek autonomy and, ultimately, independence. The US prioritises avoiding total institutional collapse in Syria – a skittishness illustrated by the American record of having trained only 60 Syrian fighters to fight ISIL almost a year after launching the campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group.
A similar set of misguided priorities applies to all the parties fighting ISIL in Iraq as well, providing it an endless series of reprieves there too.
ISIL cannot be defeated as an afterthought. But that is what it still, astonishingly, remains for all of its principal antagonists.
That is ISIL’s lifeline and it will continue until everyone – or maybe even just anyone – finally realises that defeating these uniquely evil maniacs is the most important goal after all.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
On Twitter: @ibishblog