Washington has long wanted Turkey to play a larger role in the fight against the Islamic State. That looks unlikely.
- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Long a frustrating but critical ally in the fight against the Islamic State, the Turkish government’s coming reckoning with its military leadership in the wake of Friday’s thwarted coup attempt promises to have serious effects on the future of that fight.
With President Recep Tayyip Erdogan back in control, Turkish authorities are in the midst of a massive roundup of accused conspirators, claiming to have already arrested more than 2,800 officers and enlisted personnel. The highest-ranking officer to be detained appears to be Gen. Erdal Ozturk, the commander of the Third Army, Turkish officials said Saturday.
But the coup and arrests expose deep fissures within the military, which may spell trouble for NATO’s second-largest army. “The coup plotters were able to get F-16s; they were able to get helicopters; they were able to get tanks. They took the chief of the general staff hostage,” all of which points to an enduring problem for Ankara, said Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
The coup “will result in a cleanup of our military,” Erdogan insisted Friday night, but Stein said any overall reckoning in Turkey must first be “based on the assumption that the government is stable.”
“Not only is the government unstable, but the military is also unstable,” Stein said, which could lead to more trouble, more fractures, and increased instability for the NATO member.
Erdogan has long been angered by U.S. support for various Syrian Kurd factions fighting the Islamic State in northern Syria, fighters the Turkish government considers one and the same with the PKK, a rebel group that has fought to establish a Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey and has been blamed for bloody attacks against both civilians and security personnel.
Fighting between the PKK and the Turkish military erupted anew last July after the collapse of a cease-fire agreement. Since then, hundreds of militants and security forces have been killed, including scores of Turkish soldiers and police in several recent roadside bomb attacks.
The coup has already directly impacted U.S. military operations in Syria: The Turkish government on Saturday shut down all American and NATO air operations at the critical Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. The U.S. Defense Department confirmed Saturday that power to the base — which houses at least 1,500 U.S. troops and dozens of American B61 nuclear bombs stored in underground bunkers — has also been cut. The base is running on “internal power sources,” a Pentagon spokesman said.
Press secretary Peter Cook added in a statement that “U.S. officials are working with the Turks to resume air operations there as soon as possible” and the U.S. military “is adjusting flight operations” in order to minimize any effects on the overall war effort. A spokesman for the U.S. European Command, however, told Foreign Policy that the “loss of commercial power to the base has not affected [other] base operations.”
Due to the continuing instability in Turkey, which has included both PKK and Islamic State attacks, Defense Secretary Ash Carter in May ordered all family members of military personnel based at Incirlik to leave the country.
One of the major points of contention between NATO and the Erdogan government since the start of anti-Islamic State operations has been the inability — or the unwillingness — of the Turks to more effectively seal their southern border with Syria to prevent foreign fighters from passing through on their way to link up with the Islamic State.
“I would like Turkey to do more,” Carter said this year. “I think the Turks can do more to fight ISIL. They’re helping us fight ISIL by, for example, hosting our aircraft in Turkey. I’m grateful for that. But I think they can do more.” ISIL is the U.S. government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.
The issue with respect to Turkey’s role in the anti-Islamic State fight “has been one of will rather than capability,” said Jennifer Cafarella at the Institute for the Study of War. But it “is highly unlikely that Erdogan’s interest to participate in the anti-Islamic State fight is going to increase in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt.”
American officials quietly acknowledge that there’s a simple reason for the Turkish inaction: Erdogan believes that unseating Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad is more important than battling the Islamic State. Turkish intelligence teams have long worked with the CIA at a coordination center near the Syrian border for the funneling of arms and weapons to the moderate rebels fighting the Assad regime.
In the days before the coup, however, there were indications that Erdogan — who recently repaired ties with Israel and Russia — may have softened toward Assad as well. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said this month that “we normalized our relations with Israel and Russia. I’m sure we will go back to normal relations with Syria.”
Turkish military officials are expected to be in Washington next week for a NATO meeting aimed at planning the next steps in the counter-Islamic State campaign. Defense officials would not comment on any potential changes to those plans.
Although Turkish efforts to patrol its border with Syria have generally improved in the past year, hundreds of foreign fighters continue to slip into northern Syria, where the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are squeezing the Islamic State near the city of Manbij, the terrorist group’s last major stronghold in the border region. On Friday, NATO planes — many operating out of Incirlik before it was closed — struck 22 targets around Manbij, according to figures provided by the U.S. Central Command.
U.S. and NATO forces also operate in other locations outside of Incirlik, and Pentagon officials said in April that they were deploying a powerful mobile rocket system known as HIMARS, or High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, to an undisclosed location in Turkey’s southwest to support Kurdish and Arab rebels in Syria.
The coup doesn’t appear to have much, if any, support among the highest branches of the Turkish military, however. Not only was military chief of staff Gen. Hulusi Akar taken hostage, and later freed in an operation at an air base in the outskirts of Ankara, but another top military officer, Gen. Umit Dundar, said Saturday that “the coup attempt was rejected by the chain of command immediately.” Turkish officials have also said the country’s intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, had been taken to a secure location.
Photo credit: Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images