In a week when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a surprise anti-Western statement while generals from the anti–Islamic State coalition countries (including Turkey) met in the United States, many are puzzled by Turkey’s attitude in the fight against the terrorist group.

Officially, Turkey is ready to take its “full share” in the coalition, subject to two conditions, which Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu reiterated in the country’s parliament on October 14. First, the coalition must agree on a plan for removing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; and second, allies must put in place a no-fly zone over Syria’s northern borders and a safe zone on the ground.

Removing the Assad regime is not currently a Western priority. The Syrian president still enjoys the full support of Moscow and Tehran, which would make an agreement at the UN Security Council impossible. This raises the question of how Ankara could possibly promote an action bound to be immediately opposed by Russia and Iran, which incidentally provide 76 percent of Turkey’s gas needs.

Marc Pierini
Pierini is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
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In addition, the notion that atrocities committed by the Islamic State are “conveniently” hiding those perpetrated by the Assad regime, as underlined by an adviser to the Turkish president, can hardly justify Western inaction toward the jihadists. The Islamic State is directly threatening hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds as well as Turkey and its Western European allies.

Turkey’s second demand, a no-fly zone, is considered by Western military experts as yesterday’s good idea. It could have been a useful device in 2011 or 2012, when the Assad regime unleashed attacks on civilians in northern Syria, but it was not implemented. Meanwhile, as a result of the Assad regime’s atrocities and the recent Islamic State offensive, over 1.5 million Syrians have sought refuge in Turkey, according to government figures.

By now, the Islamic State controls about 250 kilometers (155 miles) of Syria’s border with the Turkish provinces of Kilis, Gaziantep, and Şanlıurfa, while other terrorist organizations control a stretch of the frontier with the Turkish province of Hatay. This leaves two areas in great danger of facing an Islamic State ethnic-cleansing offensive, namely Syria’s predominantly Kurdish districts of Afrin and Qamishli. In the latter, the main city is disputed between the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and regime forces.

In Syria, it is primarily the Kurdish districts that are in need of protection.
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A safe zone on the ground in northern Syria would protect civilian populations in these two districts and avoid widespread massacres. But the idea would be meaningless in Islamic State–controlled territory unless the coalition launched an all-out ground offensive against the jihadists.

This raises questions of consistency for Turkey: Is Ankara ready to protect Syrian Kurds across its border while at the same time claiming that the Syrian Kurds’ PYD is affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey brands a terrorist organization comparable with the Islamic State? And would a no-fly zone over parts of Syria not invite air strikes from the Assad regime?

Today, the blunt fact is that political realities in the region are changing fast and offering new opportunities. The PYD, faced with extermination, has started amending its political course. If it goes beyond statements to the media, formally severs its ties with the Assad regime, and commits itself to staying away from PKK activities in Turkey, then the PYD could potentially become the best buffer force against the Islamic State—with Iraqi Kurdistan on the eastern side.

Can Ankara come to terms with such a scenario in the light of the Islamic State’s fast military gains in Syria and Iraq?

The latest question mark over Turkey’s position came with President Erdoğan’s speech at Marmara University on October 13, in which he denounced the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 that defines the current borders in the Levant: “Even now, they, modern Lawrences of Arabia, are fulfilling the terms of the Sykes-Picot agreement . . . Each conflict in this region has been designed a century ago . . . It is our duty to stop this.” This is a line often toed by print media that support the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

International politics being shaped by perceptions, Western observers were struck by the close resemblance between the president’s statement and comments made by the Islamic State in June, when the group symbolically and triumphantly destroyed the Iraqi-Syrian border, part of the Sykes-Picot agreement.

Hearing the president of a major NATO ally and EU applicant seemingly endorse the mantle of anti-imperialism has created noticeable waves in the alliance at the time when top military commanders gathered near Washington, DC, to discuss anti–Islamic State operations.

For many reasons, it remains difficult to establish the consistency of Turkey’s policy on the Islamic State and Syria. An anti-Assad operation is a no-go for Western partners and an invitation for more trouble for Turkey. A no-fly zone can only work in defense of Syrian Kurds or as part of a full-fledged ground offensive against the Islamic State. If undeterred, the jihadists will surely conduct further massacres against the Syrian Kurds, more of whom will flee to Turkey. And if the Syrian Kurds suffer more ethnic cleansing, Turkey stands to put its own Kurdish peace process in real jeopardy.

It is fully understandable that memories of PKK terrorism on Turkish soil make Ankara extremely reluctant to entertain a deal with the PYD. This hesitation is rooted in the painful history of the PKK insurgency and the complex evolution of the Kurdish political movement in Syria.

It is also understandable that Ankara’s “post-Sykes-Picot” depiction of contemporary regional politics is appealing to a large segment of Turkish voters, but it is a lot less comprehensible that this narrative becomes official policy.

Another wave of ethnic cleansing on Turkey's and Europe's doorstep is simply not acceptable.
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Given the momentous changes occurring in the region, should the past really be the determining factor in Turkey’s position? Or should Ankara take a fresh look at the Syrian Kurds as a potential ally, as it did with the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq a few years ago? Such an alliance may help Turkey safeguard its own Kurdish peace process and fend off the Islamic State threat and the predictable chaos it would bring to the country.

If Ankara were to make such a policy shift, the West should support it with political intermediation and offer massive backing for Turkey’s humanitarian efforts. Letting another wave of ethnic cleansing—and therefore another ideological victory for the Islamic State—occur on Turkey’s and Europe’s doorstep is simply not acceptable.


Photo by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann, used under CC BY / Cropped from original