Why Turkey is dragging its feet on helping anti-Islamic State coalition

Despite pledges to the contrary, Turkey has yet to engage in coalition efforts in any meaningful way. Its interests in taking on the Islamic State don't align with US goals, analysts say.

Umit Bektas/Reuters
A whirlwind advances towards an area where Syrian Kurds fleeing to Turkey from Syria parked their vehicles in no man's land on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province October 8, 2014. The Pentagon said on Wednesday that a Turkish proposed buffer zone was not one of the military options under consideration as a US-led coalition pursues airstrikes in Syria, but acknowledged it was a subject of discussions with Ankara.

Building an international coalition to assist the United States in the effort to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria was never going to be an easy task.

But when senior US officials make a stop in Turkey at the end of this week as part of a coalition-building tour, they’ll be visiting a US ally and NATO member that is proving to be an increasingly irksome thorn in the side of President Obama, whose strategy is to rely heavily on regional involvement to defeat the still-advancing terrorist group.

Despite pledges to the contrary, Turkey has yet to engage in coalition efforts in any meaningful way. Yet NATO’s southernmost member sits precariously on Europe’s border with Syria, which risks becoming a de facto border with the Islamic State (IS).

The reason for the lack of involvement? Turkey’s interests in taking on IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, do not align with US goals, regional analysts say, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holding out for the fight to also have the aim of ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Beyond that, Mr. Erdogan has no intention of throwing Turkey’s weight behind a regional fight that has the potential to rouse and empower the region’s Kurdish populations, experts add.

“The US is unlikely to get Turkey to sign up to its military agenda because Turkey has additional priorities for this effort that are not shared by the US,” says Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. When Turkish officials meet with their American counterparts this week, he adds, “They’re going to ask, ‘Where are the other pieces of this puzzle?’ ”

Turkish officials worry the coalition will only be creating a “vacuum” in Syrian territory now held by IS fighters that Mr. Assad could retake, solidifying his hold on power, Mr. Cagaptay says.

Mr. Obama’s special envoy to Syria and for the anti-IS fight, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, as well as Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, will be in Turkey Thursday and Friday for discussions with Turkish officials.

The US wants to know what Turkey is willing to do to assist in efforts to stop IS fighters from taking the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane on Turkey’s southern border, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told Fox News Wednesday.

But Turkey will do nothing that risks empowering Syrian Kurds and their PYD political party, a sister organization to Turkey’s PKK party, which the Turkish government considers a terrorist organization.

“The Turks don’t care about Kobane. If anything, they prefer that it fall rather than reinforce the Syrian Kurds and become an encouragement or example to Turkey’s Kurds,” says Henri Barkey, a former State Department Iraq expert who is now a professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. “They’re really afraid of the Syrian Kurds achieving some kind of autonomy like the [Kurds] in Iraq.”

Turkey is putting specific conditions on its participation in the anti-IS coalition: establishing a buffer zone inside Syria where Syrian refugees could settle and establishing a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians and the moderate Syrian fighters from Assad’s warplanes.

Those conditions in many ways mirror the steps that hawks in the US Congress are saying Obama must take if he really wants to defeat IS. In particular, they say the US must add ousting Assad to the strategy’s central goals.

That would seem to put Erdogan and congressional hawks on the same page. But Cagaptay of the Washington Institute says that Erdogan’s moves against personal freedoms in recent years have soured Turkey’s image in the US.

In the past "this situation would have been the making of a great alliance [between] Turkey and the more hawkish elements in Congress,” Cagaptay says. “But not anymore.”

In any case, Turkey is not putting forward the conditions because it believes it can pressure the US into accepting them, Professor Barkey says.

Instead, he says, it’s an “excuse” to hold Turkey back from participating in the coalition. “All this talk of supporting and joining, it’s a smoke screen,” Barkey says. “It’s a lot of theater.”

In the Turks’ defense, he notes that Turkey is dealing with demonstrations by an increasingly restive Kurdish population upset about the plight of Syrian Kurds.

“This is not easy for them,” he says, adding that the Kurdish preoccupation is leading the Turkish government to “miscalculate” its response to the IS onslaught along the southern border.

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