Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
The sudden transformation of the Islamic State into a self-proclaimed caliphate occupying large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria has surprised the international community and raised many questions about those who contributed directly or indirectly to this situation.
Turkey has often been criticized for its ambiguous attitude toward this relatively unknown jihadist organization. And while Turkey can hardly be considered the direct father of the Islamic State, Ankara’s policy since the escalation of the Syrian crisis has contributed to strengthening jihadism in both Iraq and Syria.
That is not to say that Turkey has a clear, coherent, and well-defined policy toward the Islamic State. On the contrary, the Turkish government manages every Middle Eastern crisis through a day-to-day approach that is defined according to how the situation evolves.
Some analysts maintain that there is an ideological affinity between the Islamic State’s Sunni militants and Sunni-majority Turkey that explains Ankara’s ambiguous stance toward the group. In fact, Turkey’s relative closeness to the Islamic State is more revealing of its own ineptitude than of any kind of ideological proximity or Sunni solidarity.
Turkey’s procrastination and prevarications toward the Islamic State illustrate Ankara’s fears that an extension of the Syrian crisis and a stronger role for the Kurds, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), will not be in Turkey’s security interests.
To contain the many risks engendered by the Syrian crisis, in which Turkey is completely engulfed, Ankara has adopted an unclear position, flirting with the devil. No one can predict the consequences of this ambiguity in the long term, as it is difficult to predict anything in this volatile situation in the Middle East.
Clearly, the West was initially puzzled by Turkey’s policy response to the threat from the Islamic State.
Having 46 Turkish nationals held hostage by the jihadist group was a legitimate reason for Ankara to keep a low profile. Thankfully, all those kidnapped have since been released—in what has widely been described as a swap between the hostages and Islamic State prisoners held in Turkey. This was almost officially confirmed when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan referred to a “political, diplomatic bargain.”
Will Turkey now take an active role in the anti–Islamic State coalition? There are rumors that it will play some part, but this role may remain limited. As much as Turkey enjoys the protection of NATO’s Patriot missiles against the Syrian regime, Ankara is perhaps not willing to appear an active member of a war operation against what was initially a Sunni insurgency movement in Syria.
That is not because Turks approve of the Islamic State’s horrendous violence but because the group’s anti-Western narrative (invoking crusades and the Sykes-Picot agreement) has a certain appeal to Turkish religious conservatives. In any event, Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has never wanted to appear to be aligning itself with Western policies.
But can Turkey afford to stand idly by as the Islamic State’s bloody ethnic cleansing unfolds just 1.5 miles from its southern border? This is a moment of truth.
Turkey never pleases everyone as it struggles to straddle the fault line between Western alliances and Middle Eastern realities.
No Turkish government could easily join the coalition against the Islamic State, least of all after the group took 49 members of its diplomatic mission in Mosul hostage in June. (The 46 Turks and three Iraqis were released on September 20 in an apparent prisoner exchange.)
Ankara is under little domestic pressure to move against the Islamic State. Turkey has a secular state but is a Sunni Muslim country, and polls show most Turks do not see the jihadists as a big threat to them. More often, Turks empathize with a growing narrative of Sunni victimhood in the region.
Turkey has helped NATO in, say, Afghanistan. But NATO is a defensive alliance, and a member like Turkey is not obliged to go along with non-NATO operations. Ankara sees the Islamic State not as a cause but as a symptom of a much wider problem of extremism, violence, and imbalance in the Middle East.
Open Turkish support for U.S.-led air strikes could backfire. Unlike its allies, Turkey has long and porous borders with Syria and Iraq. On the weekend of September 20–21 alone, 130,000 new refugees arrived to join the 1.5 million exiles already in Turkey. That is not just an economic and social burden but also a potential security nightmare.
Certainly, Turkey was rash in providing earlier help to aggressive Islamist fighters, hoping this would end the Syria conflict quickly. But this policy, now reversed, was not very different from the approach taken by Ankara’s allies. The West suggested it was right behind Turkey’s forward-leaning attempt to force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power—but then backed away, leaving close-by Turkey exposed to the mounting mayhem on its doorstep.
With every passing day, the Islamic State situation becomes more complicated for Turkey. True, since the release of 46 Turkish hostages on September 20, Ankara has greater room for maneuver against this jihadist entity. But Turkey’s reticence regarding its role in the coalition against the Islamic State was not only a by-product of the hostage crisis. Ankara also fears that the Islamic State may retaliate by staging terrorist attacks on Turkish soil should Turkey be portrayed as part of the vanguard action.
More importantly, policymakers in Ankara have yet to reach an agreement with Washington on the strategic objectives of the campaign. The United States has focused its efforts on degrading and destroying the Islamic State. But for Turkey, the group is really a construct of failures of governance in Syria and Iraq. Even if the Islamic State is destroyed today, there is no guarantee that it or an extremist entity of a similar ilk will not reemerge afterward.
So for Turkey, the real aim of the campaign against the Islamic State should be to address the core failures of the region. This will require a more comprehensive and a more sustained effort than just dealing with the jihadist menace. It will involve a new and more effective strategy to force a return to normalcy in Syria and Iraq. And it will require regime change in Damascus and a more inclusive government in Baghdad.
The question is whether the international community will finally find an appetite to tackle these challenges or whether it will opt to delude itself one more time by focusing exclusively on the Islamic State threat, grave as it may be.
What Turkey is up to is contributing to the nonmilitary aspects of the U.S. administration’s strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State militants.
It is highly unlikely that Turkey will contribute to the first two pillars of the strategy communicated by U.S. President Barack Obama on September 10, namely “systematic campaign of airstrikes” and “support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground,” including training, intelligence, and equipment.
But as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has hinted in various speeches, Ankara is likely to contribute to the two other pillars: counterterrorism, including cutting off funding to the Islamic State, countering its ideology, and stemming the flow of militants across the border from Iraq and Syria; and humanitarian assistance to victims of the violence.
Some would expect Turkey to do more than this after the release on September 20 of 46 Turks who were being held hostage by the Islamic State. However, Turkey is still concerned about possible jihadist attacks on Turkish territory. And, being highly sensitive to perceptions of the Arab street, Ankara is also reluctant to take part in a scenario that Sunni Muslim publics may wrongly perceive as a “crusade” against Muslims.
Turkey’s contribution may be less than what the United States would expect from an ally, but it may still be very substantial in the long run.
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