Turkey shifts tone on Islamic State. Will it join US-led coalition?

President Erdogan, courted by Obama and Biden while in New York, says Turkey is ready to play a more active role against the Islamic State. It has had many misgivings.

Osman Orsal/Reuters
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the World Economic Forum Special Meeting on Unlocking Resources for Regional Development in Istanbul September 28, 2014.

When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned home from the United Nations last week, he said Turkey was ready to play a more active role in the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition that has drawn new members both from across the West as well as the Arab world.

Just how active may become clearer Thursday when the Turkish parliament meets to take the "necessary steps" cited by President Erdogan, who was lobbied intensively by US leaders while in New York.

The Turkish lawmakers are expected to decide whether to expand the scope of two existing mandates authorizing the government to take military action in Iraq and Syria, where the jihadist Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS, has sought to create the seed of an Islamic caliphate.

Turkey shares a 206-mile-long border with Iraq and a 544-mile-long border with Syria, where IS thrived unchecked for months. Already a temporary home for more than a million refugees fleeing the 3-1/2-year civil war in Syria, Turkey has just opened its borders to a fresh wave of more than 200,000 mostly Kurdish refugees fleeing the latest IS offensive in Syria.

While in Washington’s eyes Turkey may have been dragging its feet, analysts say, the Muslim country’s reticence can only be overcome with greater support and understanding of its legitimate misgivings. Turkey would be particularly vulnerable to domestic political blowback and terrorism attacks if it decides to wage war against the group.

“They have to accept that while Turkey isn’t comfortable with IS tactics, they don’t see the Islamic State as a natural threat,” says Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group, a multinational think-tank based in Brussels. “The government isn’t under pressure to go and deal with Islamic State in Syria. Turkey is under pressure to make sure IS doesn’t come into Turkey.”

A change in rhetoric

Addressing the UN General Assembly last week, Erdogan appeared defiant in the face of any suggestion that Turkey, which is transited by foreign fighters heading to wage jihad in Iraq and Syria, was not doing enough to thwart IS. “Turkey is not a country that allows or supports terrorism because Turkey has suffered from terrorism for 30 years,” he said.

But upon his return to Istanbul Friday night, a day after being wooed by phone by President Barack Obama and in person by Vice President Joe Biden, his rhetoric had changed.

"We do not have the luxury to say terrorist actions … do not concern us," Erdogan said. "We, as Muslims, should do our best. If the Christian world takes such a step on an issue that hurts the conscience of humanity, we will not remain a bystander.”

His shift in rhetoric also follows the release of 49 Turkish civilians held hostage for 101 days by the jihadists in Mosul, Iraq. Turkey had previously cited the hostages as a constraint on its joining the coalition.

“There is so much going on that it is important that we remember that Turkey may not see things with the same lens,” says Mr. Pope. “Quite a few people in Ankara feel that even if you were to destroy the structure of IS you will end up with another kind of IS pretty soon after.”

Islamic State backlash feared

The hostages, agrees Erdal Guven, editor-in-chief of the Turkish news website Dikken, were not the only constraint.

IS has sympathizers in Turkey – the group’s symbols are visible in shops and on car windshields – and jihadists still roam the border towns, adding to Turkey’s perception that it is vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

“The Turkish government still fears a backlash from the Islamic State because they have human power very close to the Turkish border,” says Mr. Guven. “They recruited a lot of people from Turkey as well, so they have potential militants in Turkish soil,” he adds.

Recent polls also show that a majority of Turks fear that IS is sufficiently established on Turkish soil to carry out terrorist attacks, which would scare off tourists and investors alike.

'Unwillingness to be involved'

Another wild card, and significant constraint on Ankara, is the role of the Kurds, a restive population in Turkey. Since the launch of an IS-offensive against the border town of Kobane, which sparked the mass exodus of Syrian Kurds,  tensions have run high, spilling into clashes with police on repeated occasions.

In Iraq, the rise of the Islamic State was a direct threat to the ethnic group, but boosted its profile in the West, where it was seen as a relatively effective counterforce against IS. In Syria, Kurds may prove an ally against IS as well. But for Ankara, any scenario that leads to the arming of Kurdish factions who dream of autonomy, particularly the PKK, which Turkey regards as a terrorist group, is simply alarming.

Domestic politics are another constraint. Turkey will hold general elections in 2015, and US-led military action in the Middle East is viewed with great skepticism among conservative Islamists who back the ruling Justice and Development Party.

“Polls show a great distaste towards the Islamic State, but, on the other hand, an unwillingness to be involved in the international campaign,” says Mustafa Akyol, an analyst and author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.” Conservatives in the Islamist camp see IS as an aberration, but they don’t want in on the so-called Crusaders Christian coalition.

There are signs now that Turkey is trying to stem the flow of foreign fighters, many of them European Muslims, across its territory. It is enforcing stricter controls at airports, and scaling up its military presence along the border. It is also taking part of Interpol's newly launched Foreign Terrorist Fighter program, an intelligence sharing initiative aimed at preventing transnational terrorism, tracking foreign fighters, and thwarting their movements.

Key questions

But on the military front, key questions remain. Will Turkey allow the use of its air space for bombers headed to Iraq and Syria? Will Turkey authorize the United States to use Incirilik, a base near Adana, to launch air strikes against IS?

“Turkey is keen not to take part in any active military operation in the region for the time being. But İncirlik is available for use for humanitarian and logistical operations within the struggle against (IS),” said a Turkish official cited by Hurriyet Daily News.

In the end, Turkey’s policy on the Islamic State will most likely be driven by pragmatic concerns. Even Western observers point out that for years Erdogan’s calls for action against his former ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, went unheeded. Now, Turkey cannot be expected to wage open war against the Sunni militant group overnight.  

The West, in many ways, left Turkey hanging when it came to Syria, these observers say. Ankara expected intervention in Syria and at one stage it appeared imminent. But Obama’s threat that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a "red line" turned out to have no follow-through.

The gruesome beheadings by the Islamic State, which have caused so much uproar in the West, are no more upsetting to Turks than the barrage of barrel bombs dropped by Syrian government forces on opposition-held areas, killing tens of thousands of civilians.

“I find it strange that we focus on issues selectively,” Erdogan said at the UN. “Two thousand people were killed by chemical weapons and we focus on chemical weapons. What about 200,000 people killed with conventional weapons. Is that not a crime?”

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