Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States with Islamic State militants grabbing villages just across its southern border in Syria, is joining President Obama’s international coalition to fight the Islamist extremists in Iraq and Syria.
Turkey’s decision Thursday will hearten US officials – to a certain degree.
What the addition of the Atlantic alliance’s only Muslim country to the ranks of anti-Islamic State countries is not likely to do is quiet Turkey’s criticisms of the anti-IS strategy – or end Turkish leaders’ ambivalence about entering a fight that looks to part of the Turkish population like a Western war on political Islam.
Turkey’s parliament voted overwhelmingly Thursday to authorize military intervention by the country’s armed forces in Iraq and Syria. The approved resolution notably includes language authorizing “foreign militaries” to launch cross-border operations from Turkish soil.
That language has the potential to allow the US to use air bases in Turkey to launch airstrikes on IS positions in Syria and Iraq.
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rhetorical mix of support and criticism in the run-up to the vote on military authorization suggests to many regional analysts that Turkey is not likely to join the fight with IS quickly or enthusiastically.
Mr. Erdogan’s public beefs with the US strategy to “degrade and eventually destroy” IS in Iraq and Syria include what he sees as an over-reliance on airstrikes, and the absence from the strategy of any effort to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
Privately, Turkish officials worry that actions against IS will serve to reinforce Kurdish populations on both sides of the border – and Erdogan has not shied away from raising the Kurdish issue publicly.
Turkey’s concerns about the region’s Kurds – who straddle the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and who have long dreamed of an independent Kurdistan – are nothing new. But the regional turmoil and a blurring of borders in the wake of the IS advance from Syria into Iraq are stoking those concerns.
Kurdish fighters along the border in Syria accuse Turkey of tacitly condoning the spread of IS militants across northern Syria, while some Turks along the Syrian border openly profess a preference for the Sunni Muslim forces of IS over the Kurds.
But none of these issues was enough to prompt Erdogan or a sizable number in the parliament – the vote in favor of authorizing military action was 298 to 98 – to remain on the margins of the coalition of about 40 countries pledging to join the US-led battle against IS.
In the pre-vote debate Erdogan had declared that Turkey was prepared “for any cooperation in the fight against terrorism.” The vote came the same day the United Nations released a new report detailing a long list of “gross human rights abuses” IS is committing in the territory it now holds, from murder and sexual assault to trafficking in persons – primarily the selling of women into sexual slavery – forced conversions, and destruction of places of worship.
At the same time, however, Erdogan called for a broader strategy to reach beyond just the struggle with IS to include efforts to resolve the Syrian civil war.
But some Western leaders remain wary of where Erdogan will take Turkey under the new authorization to intervene. Last week, the Turkish leader told Obama on the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting that Turkey’s contributions to the effort would be “both military and political.”
But back in Turkey this week, Erdogan said in a speech that the West was becoming increasingly “anti-Islam,” as it ramps up the anti-IS effort.
He also queried rhetorically why it is that the West is mobilizing against IS, which he referred to by the alternative name ISIS, after having ignored for decades the threat posed to Turkey by the Kurdish extremist separatist group, the Kurdistan Workers party, or PKK.
“While the ISIS terror organization is causing turmoil in the Middle East, there has been ongoing PKK terror in my country for the last 32 years,” Erdogan said, “and yet the world was never troubled by it. Why?” he added. “Because this terror organization did not carry the name ‘Islam.’ ”
US officials seem likely to remind the Turkish leader that the US has for decades stood with his country in its battle with violent Kurdish separatists, having named the PKK a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.
It’s true that some voices in Washington are calling for the PKK to be de-listed – in part because the PKK has formally renounced hostilities with the Turkish government and especially in light of the role PKK fighters have played in rescuing some minority populations from IS slaughter. But US officials may refrain from mentioning the de-listing campaign as they probe the Turks on the role they’re ready to play in the anti-IS fight.