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Can Turkey and NATO reconcile over Syria strategy?

When the US formed an international coalition to fight ISIS last year, Turkey was a reluctant partner. It has been accused, at best, of turning a blind eye to jihadist groups and, at worst, actively encouraging them in order to oust Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad. Turkey has always denied this charge. That seems to have changed this week, as the country has suddenly stepped up its military campaign, bombing both ISIS targets in Syria and Kurdish positions in northern Iraq.

NATO leaders held an emergency meeting in Brussels to discuss the Turkish military campaign. This was an unusual step; to call the meeting, Turkey used Article 4 of the NATO founding treaty, which covers incidents when members feel that their "territorial integrity, political independence or security… is threatened." This is only the fifth time in the 66-year history of the alliance that a meeting has been held on these grounds.

In the end, NATO voiced its "strong support" for Turkey following the emergency meeting. At a press conference, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: "In the meeting there was full agreement on the statement and all allies expressed their strong support for Turkey. We all stand together united with Turkey. All allies condemn terrorism in all its forms."

This was by no means a foregone conclusion; Turkey's hard line position on the Kurds presented a dilemma for NATO leaders. Although the Kurdish YPG force has been working with the US to fight ISIS, Turkey – home to a long-running Kurdish insurgency – says that it sees no distinction and that both are terrorist groups. Over the past week, the Turkish authorities have arrested more than 1,000 suspected Kurdish and ISIS militants. The YPG has close ties to the PKK, the militant Kurdish organisation within Turkey that has fought a long civil war against the authorities, which has killed 40,000 people since 1984.

While the US in particular has formed a functional working relationship with Kurdish forces over the past year, seeing them as the best hope of tackling ISIS on the ground, Turkey has grown more hostile to these groups. There has been an upsurge of violence inside Turkey in the largely Kurdish south-eastern regions. In June's national elections, the Kurdish party secured representation in parliament for the first time. Critics of the Turkish government believe that President Erdogan may be emphasising tensions with the Kurds deliberately in order to rally support from Turkish nationalists, who have always opposed the peace process.

In calling for the NATO meeting, Turkey was hoping to draw attention to this renewed Kurdish violence. Yet, as the BBC's Paul Adams writes: "The suspicion lingers that Ankara may be looking to exploit its new status as an active participant in the campaign against [ISIS] to win support for – or at least mute criticism of – its ongoing battle with the Kurds." The Turkish position is nothing if not complex. Part of the reason it has been so reluctant to get involved in the conflict is that it did not want to help the Kurds at the forefront of fighting ISIS militants.

Of course, recent events and a changing reality on the ground have played a part in Turkey's change of strategy. A series of attacks within Turkey were the direct catalyst for action. The worst was a suicide bombing last week in Suruc, southern Turkey, which left 32 people dead. Turkey blamed an ISIS-trained militant. In the aftermath of the attack, Kurdish militants killed two police officers, claiming it was retaliation for Turkish support of ISIS. While one reading is that this increased violence within Turkish borders has prompted action against ISIS, another is that Turkey is willing to strike jihadists as a cover for pursuing its long standing enemy, the Kurdish militants.

Turkey and the US agreed a plan to create a "buffer zone" in Syrian territory along the Turkish border, currently controlled by ISIS. This would potentially create a safe zone for thousands of Syrian refugees. It will be easier for the US to act now that it can launch attacks from Turkish soil; the agreement increases the scope of the US operation significantly.

But is the cost of this military cooperation going to be that the US and its allies turn a blind eye to Turkish action against the Kurds? Turkey has denied allegations that its military has shelled Kurdish-held villages in northern Syria. If confirmed, these attacks would be the most serious incident yet of Turkey targeting Kurdish-controlled areas in the Syrian conflict.

Turkey has always had a different view to its NATO allies on how best to handle the Syrian conflict. The question now is whether these differences are reconcilable.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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