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Turkey and the Islamic State crisis: everyone's non-ally?

The military success of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq intensifies questions over Turkey's strategy and decisions. What Ankara does next will help to resolve them.   

Turkey's parliament, the grand national assembly, voted on 2 October 2014 to extend for a further year pre-existing parliamentary permission for the government to send troops into Iraq or Syria in pursuit of "terrorist organisations". The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) is specifically mentioned in the resolution, while the Islamic State (IS) is not. The resolution also envisages permission for allied forces to be granted access to Turkish territory. Washington has welcomed the vote, and in coming days will discuss with Ankara precisely what contribution Turkey might now make to the anti-IS campaign.

The vote comes in the wake of Turkey’s decision in September not to join the ten Arab countries who, at a meeting in Jeddah, committed themselves to the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. It also takes place against a more general background of frustration at Turkey’s inaction vis-à-vis IS. Ankara had cited, as a reason for its caution, the fact that forty-nine Turkish hostages were being held by IS since the group's capture of Mosul during its rapid offensive in June. The release of the hostages on 20 September removed at least this factor from the equation. 

In theory, then, Turkey should now be freer to act. But the signals are mixed. Both the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the chief of Turkey's general staff, Necdet Özel, have strongly hinted that force will be used should there be any threat to the tomb of Suleyman Shah or to the handful of Turkish soldiers guarding it: although located around thirty kilometres inside Syria, this historic site is regarded as sovereign Turkish territory. By contrast, Turkey's defence minister Ismet Yilmaz has warned against expecting any imminent military action.

Turkey and Syria: policy, or sloppy process?

Turkey’s approach to the crises generated by IS advances in Iraq and Syria has been puzzling, and shrouded in a troubling murkiness. Many argue that Turkey has turned a blind eye to the activities of jihadist groups on its border with Syria, though inside Ankara’s governing circles the notion is vigorously rejected (when United States vice-president Joseph Biden reported Erdogan's admission that Turkey had been too lax in allowing Syria’s jihadist fighters to cross the Turkey-Syria border, the president demanded, and received, an apology.) 

A case can be made that Turkey, along with some Gulf states who have provided much funding to Syria’s jihadist opposition, shares responsibility for their emergence as the most formidable opponents to the Assad regime. It is an open secret, and has been much reported, that Turkish territory has been used by some of the more extreme opposition groups for recruitment, training, fundraising and medical care. Supplies, recruits, oil from fields captured by IS fighters, and even arms have been smuggled across the border with little hindrance, at least until very recently. Turkish intelligence units transporting arms to Syria have even been intercepted by the Turkish police - only for the police chiefs initiating the operations to suffer demotion. Moreover, Turkey protested when in late 2012 the US designated the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate from which IS later splintered, as a terrorist group.

Ankara has answered accusations of indifference to if not complicity with jihadist groups by quite reasonably pointing to the porous nature of its long (over 800 kilometres) border with Syria, and to the need to keep the massive flow of humanitarian aid moving. Turkey is also not the only source of assistance to anti-Assad groups; the US itself is believed to have smuggled arms into Syria.

But the US secretary of state John Kerry’s characterisation of Turkey’s efforts as a "sloppy process" seems about right. In its prioritisation of Assad’s overthrow, Turkey has been indifferent to the destination of weapons and other material, and to the affiliation of fighters. It has been happy to strengthen whoever has opposed Assad, on the principle of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". Turkey has also disapproved of western aid to the Syrian opposition precisely because of the west's increasing concern at its fragmentation and factionalism, and at the growing profile and effectiveness of its jihadist elements. (It is worth pointing out here that Washington’s current determination to build an effective "moderate" force from what is still a disparate and mostly far from moderate pool of candidates, to give Riyadh the job of training them, and to hope that a hitherto elusive firewall can be established between Syria’s "moderate" and its jihadist opposition, will surely prove a fraught exercise.)

It's the Kurds, stupid

Kurds on both sides of the Turkey-Syria border are unimpressed by Ankara’s explanations. They note that Turkey tried to seal a part of its border with Syria in November 2013, by erecting a two-metre-high fence to divide Turkey’s Kurds from their ethnic cousins in Qamishli - an act which provoked Kurdish demonstrations on both sides of the border. Turkey's interior ministry justified the construction as a security measure aimed at preventing smuggling and illegal crossings, yet it has not taken similar steps in those border areas criss-crossed by jihadist groups.

Turkey's stance towards the leading Kurdish armed group in Syria has also caused disquiet. The People’s Defence Units (or YPG), the fighting arm of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (or PYD), have been fighting against Syria’s jihadists since early 2013, and with considerable success. The PYD leader Salih Muslim has visited Ankara frequently in an attempt to persuade Turkey to switch allegiances. Ankara’s position has been that Syria’s Kurds must first join the Ankara-sponsored Syrian National Council (SNC) and Free Syrian Army (FSA). Muslim has declined to do so, thereby confirming in Ankara’s eyes that his sympathies lie with the Assad regime. However, the SNC has refused to embrace Kurdish demands, and has proved to be ineffective, divided and corrupt - hence the absence of western enthusiasm for it. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the PYD has concluded that Ankara has been more determined to undermine the Kurds than it has been to defeat the jihadists - that, indeed, it has strengthened the latter in order to achieve the former.

At the time of writing, the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, right up against Turkey’s border, is under attack from three sides by Islamic State fighters, and looks set to fall. If it does, IS will control yet another section of the border with Turkey. The battle has prompted over 150,000 mainly Kurdish inhabitants to flee across the border into Turkey.

Overall, Turkey has shown impressive generosity towards Syrian refugees. But this sudden flood was initially obstructed by Turkish security forces, who have also since sought to prevent Kurds already in Turkey from re-crossing into Syria to reinforce Kobane’s defence. Turkish forces on the border have been substantially augmented but are doing nothing, in what looks like a re-enactment of the Soviet indifference to the fate of the Warsaw uprising at the hands of Nazi Germany’s troops. Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), with which the PYD is affiliated, has declared that the fall of Kobane will herald the end of Turkey’s Kurdish peace process. Unlike the fate of Turkey’s forty-nine hostages, this threat does not appear to have modified the government’s behaviour. President Erdogan has chosen this moment to declare that he makes no distinction between the PKK and IS as both are terrorist groups, while prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu has again blamed the PYD’s refusal to align with the anti-Kurdish SNC for the plight of Syria’s Kurds.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that of three possible objectives in Syria, Ankara puts the fall of Assad and the defeat of Kurdish aspirations above that of the destruction of the Islamic State. So what contribution to the fight against the IS can Washington now, after the parliamentary decision of 2 October, expect from Ankara?

There have already been hints that it might not extend beyond humanitarian, logistical and intelligence measures. Ankara has long called for the establishment of a no-fly zone in northern Syria, although Syrian aircraft rarely venture too far north (even less so in light of the US bombing campaign in the country.) It has also called for the establishment of a "humanitarian corridor" on the Syrian side of the border, where refugees can be safely housed and humanitarian assistance delivered.

Syria’s Kurds oppose the corridor idea because they suspect that Turkish forces might use it to weaken the YPG and undermine the autonomous Syrian Kurdish cantons that have been established. In any case, IS forces would need to be cleared from the area. And it is hard to see what use such a corridor would be for the roughly one million Syrian refugees in Turkey that are not confined to camps. Damasacus, supported by Tehran, has declared that the presence of Turkish forces on Syrian territory would be regarded as "an act of aggression". There is unlikely to be a United Nations Security Council resolution that legitimises such a corridor, and in any case none of Turkey’s allies are yet prepared to put "boots on the ground".

Will Turkey be prepared to fill this gap, in the face of Syrian and Iranian hostility, perhaps alongside moderate Saudi-trained (and Turkey-trained?) opposition forces? If not, then that leaves possible US access to the Incirlik airbase, and a possible Turkish contribution to a bombing campaign that is already running out of targets and is unlikely by itself to rid Syria of extreme jihadist elements. Or might Turkey use its involvement to focus instead on degrading Syrian government capabilities?

Avoiding two neighbouring quagmires?

What Turkey and Washington’s Arab allies most want is Assad’s overthrow. This is what Ankara means when it refers to the need for a longer-term political solution. This has a sectarian tinge to it, or at any rate will be seen as such by Damascus and Tehran. The US would also like to see Assad’s demise, but that is not the reason behind its Syrian air campaign. These different priorities will be hard to marry up politically, but operationally hard to separate. A quagmire beckons, which is what President Obama has suspected all along. Turkey’s parliamentary vote also gives a green light to Turkish involvement in Iraq.

However, a different kind of quagmire beckons there. Washington’s campaign, backed this time by its western rather than its Arab allies (and, uncomfortably, by Iran), is in support of the ground forces of the Kurdish peshmerga, the Iraqi armed forces, and Shi'a militias. The hope is that Iraq’s Sunni tribes will join the fight in the guise of yet-to-be-formed "National Guard" units. Its success hinges on four factors: the speed with which the Iraqi armed forces can be made both effective and non-sectarian, Baghdad’s willingness to allow the delivery of heavy arms to the peshmerga, the Shi'a militias’ restraint in Sunni areas, and the formation of an effective government in Baghdad. There are grounds for pessimism on all four counts. Disentangling Islamic State forces from the Sunni communities within which they are embedded, and liberating populations centres such Mosul and Tikrit, will not be easy.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is bitterly disappointed that Turkey, its "strategic ally", did not come to its rescue when Erbil was threatened by IS forces. Nor has Turkey joined the allied bombing campaign in Iraq. Like Washington, Erbil was and is expecting more from Turkey. So were Iraq’s Turkmen, who instead were obliged either to rely on the Kurds to rescue them from the Islamic State’s barbarous excesses against them, or else to flee south to Shi'a Iraq. In contrast, Tehran stepped into the breach with arms and ground forces to assist both the Kurds and Iraq’s Shi'a.

Turkey, though, remains the export route for the KRG’s oil, and trade will surely pick up again if and when the current crisis passes. The KRG cannot avoid a degree of dependence on Turkey, but it has surely been taught a lesson about the limits of the relationship. The KRG had been heralded by some as the only neighbour with which Turkey had achieved "zero problems". This might no longer be the case. The immediate threat to Erbil has passed, and it is hard to see what Turkey can now bring to the table in Iraq. At least the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki has been removed, but Ankara will not lightly join what it still sees - not entirely without reason - as an essentially Shi'a struggle against marginalised Sunni Arab communities. Perhaps in due course Ankara can train Sunni Arab guardsmen - although any such involvement might well be interpreted in a sectarian light by both Baghdad and Tehran. Perhaps it will belatedly join the western bombing campaign? 

To be, or not to be, an ally: that is the question

In its commentary on Ankara’s refusal to sign the Jeddah agreement in mid-September, the Wall Street Journal caused quite a commotion by referring to Turkey as a "non-ally". Both before and since, Turkey has done a lot to give credence to that assessment. It now has the opportunity to put things right. But this Turkish government’s capacity for self-damage should not be underestimated. It is arguably the country best placed to make a difference, but is in grave danger of emerging as everyone’s "non-ally". The risks are not only to Turkey’s diplomatic relationships, but also to its domestic harmony. Yet there are remarkably few indications that Ankara is yet aware of the gravity of its predicament. Hopefully, the next few days might prove that assessment wrong.

About the author

Bill Park is a senior lecturer in the department of defence studies at Kings College London. He is currently conducting a longer-term study of the three way relationship between Turkey, the United States and the Kurdish Regional Government in Northern Iraq. His books include Turkey's Policy Towards Northern Iraq: Problems and Prospects (Routledge, 2005), and Modern Turkey: People, State and Foreign Policy in a Globalized World (Routledge, 2011)


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