Fiddling While Kobani Burns

Turkey is talking tough about the Islamic State. But it’s still not ready for war.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Last week, the Turkish Grand National Assembly voted to authorize the use of force in Syria and Iraq. Turkish legislators also voted to permit the deployment of foreign forces in Turkey for the purpose of fighting against the Islamic State (IS). The votes were heralded in the Turkish and U.S. media as proof that Ankara is a dependable ally in the ongoing battle against the Islamic State. So why are Turkish forces sitting idly along the border while jihadist militants advance toward the border?

The Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani, along the Turkish frontier, is on the verge of falling to IS. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Tuesday that a ground invasion will be necessary to rescue the city. But Ankara has stood by for weeks as the jihadists have laid siege to the city. Even while Erdogan insists that it will take a ground invasion to keep Kobani from the hands of the self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Turkish tanks stand sentry along the border within view of the fight, doing little more than observing.

It turns out that Turkey’s authorization of the use of force was less about fighting Baghdadi than about giving Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu the maximum amount of domestic political flexibility given the multiple dilemmas the Turkish government confronts in Syria, Iraq, with the Kurds, and at home.

Turkish parliamentarians have given their government the permission to use force in Iraq and Syria either seven or nine times since 2003, depending on how you count. The thing is that all but two of these allowances focused specifically on fighting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq — the very same forces that are fighting against the Islamic State. In October 2012, the Grand National Assembly granted the government’s request to deploy Turkish forces in Syria and renewed its mandate for military operations against the PKK. Last week’s resolution, passed on Oct. 2, does much the same as the 2012 legislation but, in the current regional context, the pro-Erdogan press — and a surprisingly large number of foreign media outlets — led people to believe that it was a specifically anti-IS resolution.

Neither Erdogan nor the Justice and Development Party (AKP)-controlled parliament nor the Obama administration had any interest in disabusing anyone of this notion. As the International Crisis Group’s Hugh Pope makes clear, the recent authorization contains tougher language than previous iterations, but the legislation’s passage in no way indicates that the Turks are on the verge of military action against IS. Even before the vote, Minister of Defense Ismet Yilmaz stated that, in all likelihood, Turkish boots would remain on Turkish ground. Now, as Turkish troops watch IS shell Kobani, that seems clearer than ever.  

Turkey seems like it should be not just a part of the anti-IS coalition, but one of its leading members. Erdogan has insisted that Turkey does not support IS, has never allowed extremists to use Turkish territory to link up with IS, and regards IS as a major threat. Yet he refused to make any clear commitment to actually do anything to stop the terrorists’ rampage just across the border. Like everything else that Erdogan and other Turkish officials have said about IS since its forces stormed into Mosul in early June, these claims are sufficiently broad to be true enough, but are not entirely accurate.

The Turks may not support the Islamic State, but there is circumstantial evidence that at times they were coordinating with the group (and other extremists) to advance Ankara’s interests in Syria in the last three years of civil war. Without stretching credulity, the Turks can claim that they did not knowingly allow foreign jihadists to transit through Turkey on the way to Syria. And yes, Ankara has consistently called IS a threat, although it has done very little about the gathering storm on two of its borders.

The Islamic State’s threat to Turkey is clear: The group’s radical ideology is a threat to Turkey’s officially secular political system founded on the ruins of the Ottoman sultanate and caliphate. The jihadists, who now claim their own caliphate, also threaten the ruling Justice and Development Party’s worldview, which may be Islamist but shares nothing with Baghdadi and his followers. Moreover, for all of its difficult relations with Brussels and Washington, Turkey is intertwined with the West through NATO and its well-developed economic links with the European Union. The leaders of IS believe that they are in a messianic struggle with the non-Muslim world, especially the United States and Europe. And if Ankara wants anything in the Middle East, it is to lead the region. The Islamic State seeks to spoil this lofty goal, which for Turkey runs right through Syria and Iraq. Yet the Turkish government still dithers.

Erdogan’s inaction can be explained by the unique dilemmas IS poses for Turkey. Every policy response designed to resolve these dilemmas merely creates new challenges, from domestic politics to the long-simmering question of Kurdish autonomy. There is no exit for Erdogan. Action or inaction against IS both contain security threats and political risks that the Turkish president would prefer to avoid.

First and foremost, Ankara cannot seem to decide which is a bigger threat: IS or the Kurds. On the one hand, President Erdogan, in his 12 years as prime minister, worked harder than any of his predecessors to resolve the "Kurdish problem," most recently undertaking peace talks with the PKK, a group that has waged war against the Turkish state since 1984. But from the Turkish perspective, coming to the rescue of Kobani actually threatens to undo the progress that his government has made in recent years.

The PKK is a terrorist organization, but it came out looking very good after Iraqi Kurdish leaders — in an act of desperation — requested the help of PKK guerillas after the Islamic State’s siege of Mount Sinjar in August. The PKK performed well, in contrast to the Peshmerga fighters loyal to Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and his Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). The Peshmerga, whose name means "those who face death," did not exactly live up to their reputation as effective warriors. And with the PKK’s popularity soaring both in Iraqi and Turkey’s Kurdish regions, Ankara is terrified of how a resurgent PKK will affect the AKP politically and what it might mean for Turkish security. It’s much harder to negotiate an end to a three-decade conflict when your adversary is on the rise politically.

So the Turks have looked for a way to take the PKK down a notch or two and they found it in Syria, more specifically in Kobani, which is part of a self-declared Kurdish canton under the control of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). More than 130,000 Kurds fled the city over one weekend in late September. Erdogan and Davutoglu have declared that they will help the Kurds of Kobani, but they have only managed to park a bunch of tanks on the border and suggest lamely that the PYD join the Free Syrian Army. Meanwhile, Turkey has prevented PKK fighters from crossing the border to join the fight.

This inaction risks angering Turkey’s own Kurdish population (almost 14 million in total) and has thrown the peace process with the PKK in jeopardy. The organization’s leaders have threatened to end their cease-fire with the Turkish armed forces if the Turks allow Kobani to fall — which seems likely — but Ankara clearly believes that is a preferable outcome to throwing the Turkish military into the fight against IS, thereby helping the PYD and PKK.

But even as Kurdish terrorists are occupied in Syria and Iraq, keeping their militancy out of Turkey, there are other fears for Erdogan’s government. Although Turkey secured the release of 46 Turkish diplomats that IS had been holding since June (through the release of IS fighters in Turkish custody), Ankara remains afraid of beheadings of Turkish citizens — and worse. Because of both the proximity of IS-controlled territory and the very fact that Islamic State fighters have used Turkish territory for everything from R & R and medical care to smuggling, the Turks have every reason to fear that if they start putting Turkish warheads on IS foreheads, Baghdadi will make blood run in the streets of Istanbul. The Turks understand that they live in a dangerous neighborhood and that, unlike for the United States or Europe, what they do in Syria can reverberate at home almost immediately.

The Turkish analysis of the situation is different from that of the United States and the Europeans. Ankara believes that IS emerged as a result of the Syrian civil war, which in turn is the result of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s intransigence and brutality. The Turks thus insist that getting rid of Assad is the only way to get rid of IS. This is both simplistic and self-serving: Given that Ankara has been vocal in its support for regime change in Syria, anything less would be a profound embarrassment to Erdogan and Davutoglu. Inasmuch as Erdogan does not believe that the United States is going to do in Assad and may even sometime down the road tacitly agree to some sort of deal that leaves the Syrian dictator in place, the Turks remain cool to taking part in the anti-IS coalition.

Finally, though it may be hard to believe, there are elements of the AKP’s constituency that regard IS as a legitimate group seeking to protect Sunni interests in Syria and Iraq amid ongoing sectarian bloodshed. Erdogan may be the master of the Turkish political universe — but he leaves nothing to chance. His presidential victory in August with 51.65 percent support was narrower than he had hoped. Erdogan hopes that a national parliamentary election next June will return a legislature that will advance his agenda, especially his desire to write a constitution that gives him more power as president. He can’t afford to alienate any allies as he moves forward and that includes those among his hard-core supporters who find something appealing in IS’s message about Sunni solidarity and the restoration of the caliphate.

Turkish leaders know they are boxed in. This tough position has them frozen in fear — any move they make seems likely to blow back at them in a way they don’t want. The Turks may yet pull the trigger against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s forces, but only after a lot of kicking and screaming.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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