Dispatch

‘Our Hands and Arms Are Tied’

Turkey may be the most important U.S. coalition partner in the fight against the Islamic State. But getting it on board won't be easy.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP

ISTANBUL — Over the past week, top U.S. officials have beaten a path to Ankara’s door. On Sept. 8, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel landed in Turkey; he was followed by Secretary of State John Kerry, who arrived on Sept. 12 to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other top officials. As Washington tries to cobble together an international coalition to defeat the Islamic State (IS), the slew of visits highlights Turkey’s importance to the effort. As one senior U.S. official put it, Ankara will be "absolutely indispensable" in the ongoing fight.

Turkey, however, appears to think otherwise. On Thursday, Sept. 11, the United States and 10 Arab countries signed a memorandum in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, pledging a "coordinated military campaign" against IS. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who was also in attendance, abstained. Later reports confirmed that Turkey, the only Muslim country in NATO’s "core coalition" against the Sunni extremists, would not allow its territory to be used for military strikes against the Islamic State.

"Turkey will not be involved in any armed operation but will entirely concentrate on humanitarian operations," said one Turkish official.

Turkey’s refusal coincides with an increase in criticism from Washington about Ankara’s alleged backing for extremists within the Syrian opposition. Francis Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador to Ankara until June, claimed last week that Turkey’s support had extended to the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. "We ultimately had no choice but to agree to disagree" about the wisdom of working with such groups, Ricciardone said.

According to Turkish officials, a key factor behind the country’s unwillingness to play a bigger, or at least a more visible, role in the anti-IS coalition is an ongoing hostage crisis.

On June 11, Islamic State militants overran the Turkish consulate in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, capturing 49 people. Despite earlier warnings about the jihadist advance, the compound had not been evacuated. The hostages — who include the consul general, other staff, and family members — are reportedly alive but remain held by ISIS. Within days of the kidnapping, a Turkish court banned media outlets from reporting on any developments in the case, citing concern for the hostages’ safety.

"The hostage crisis has basically immobilized Turkey against ISIS," says Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). "Our hands and arms are tied because of the hostages," a Turkish official acknowledged in the run-up to Kerry’s visit.

But there’s more to Turkey’s reluctance. Ankara is worried that military action against IS would empower another group that it considers to be a terrorist organization: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has emerged as one of the most powerful brakes on the Islamic State’s expansion in Iraq and Syria. Turkey and the PKK have fought a 30-year civil war that has left over 30,000 dead, and while both sides are inching toward a peace settlement, mistrust remains high. "The weapons sent to the region should not end up in the hands of terrorist organizations," Cavusoglu warned last week. "They should not end up in the hands of the PKK."

Turkey also has reason to fret about possible blowback if it confronts IS. Anywhere from several hundred to more than 1,000 Turkish nationals are estimated to be fighting alongside the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Many of them could come launch terrorist attacks against the home front if Turkey confronts the group too directly. There is also mounting suspicion here that IS has set up sleeper cells on Turkish soil. As two Turkish analysts put it in a recent study, "No other NATO country is exposed to the threat of [Islamic State] jihadism as Turkey is."

Finally, Turkey, which has championed the Sunni opposition against Assad almost since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, is leery of being part of an alliance that might damage its standing in the Arab world. "There’s a worry [in Ankara] that the campaign will be perceived as another Western attack against Sunni Muslims," says Unluhisarcikli.

In that regard, Turkey’s reaction is "not significantly different" from that of the Arab states, says Soli Ozel, a professor at Kadir Has University. "It doesn’t want to fight against [IS], but it is concerned," he says. "I think the political decision to support the U.S. has been made, but [Turkey] would like to do so as discretely as possible."

According to Turkish officials, it has been doing so for a while.

Having initially turned a blind eye to extremists who used its territory to enter Syria, with which it shares a 550-mile border, Turkey has recently redoubled efforts to intercept Islamic State recruits. At least 453 people suspected of links to the extremists have been deported in the first eight months of this year alone, according to a Turkish official. One hundred and seven more have been denied entry at Istanbul’s two international airports. 

Turkey says it has also stepped up its crackdown on fuel smuggling, a major source of income for IS. Turkish border guards have recently halted the flow of oil trucks from Syria and destroyed dozens of makeshift plastic pipelines laid across the border by smugglers. According to a statement issued by Turkey’s Customs Ministry — issued in August, as international pressure for Turkey to crack down on the Islamic State was building — the authorities have shut down 233 gas stations between April 2013 and July 2014 for selling smuggled petrol. 

Down the line, says Unluhisarcikli, Turkey may contribute to the other pillars of the U.S. strategy against ISIS, including intelligence cooperation and measures to limit the militants’ movement across borders. "I think the Americans might desire more, but they do not expect it," he says. "They’ll settle for what they can get."

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