It’s Time for Turkey to Stop Denying that ISIS Is a Threat

Earlier this week Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the strategic Syrian town of Kobani is on the verge of falling to the forces of the Islamic State, the group formerly known as ISIS. “I am telling the West — dropping bombs from the air will not provide a solution,” Erdogan said during a ...

Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images
Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images

Earlier this week Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the strategic Syrian town of Kobani is on the verge of falling to the forces of the Islamic State, the group formerly known as ISIS. “I am telling the West — dropping bombs from the air will not provide a solution,” Erdogan said during a visit on Tuesday to the border town of Gaziantep. “The terror will not be over … unless there is cooperation for a ground operation.”

He’s probably right. Yet the statement was somewhat ironic coming from Erdogan, since it’s Turkey that’s been notably reluctant to assist such an operation. As the fighting around Kobani continued, Turkish troops watched calmly from their side of the border as IS tanks swarmed into the outskirts of the town. (The photo above shows Turkish Kurds watching the attack on Kobani near the Turkey-Syria border on Oct. 9.) The Turks actively prevented Kurdish forces from reinforcing their hard-pressed troops who are now holding out against the IS assault. Turkey’s partners in the anti-IS coalition were undoubtedly bemused by the spectacle.

So why is Turkey holding back from unleashing its formidable military against the Islamic State? Until last month, Ankara explained its reluctance by its fear for the safety of the 46 Turkish diplomats held by the Islamic State. But now that the hostages have been released — apparently, some observers believe, in exchange for the handover of IS militants held by Turkey — that excuse has fallen away.

The reality is that the roots of Turkish ambivalence toward the Islamic State go much deeper.

To begin with, Turks have for a long time viewed IS militants as relatively less horrible than the regime in Damascus. While other countries tend to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as the “lesser of two evils,” Turkish officials regard him as the biggest evil, the man responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands Syrians (not to mention scores of Turks).

From the very early stages of the Syrian crisis, Erdogan and his colleagues have stated that Ankara intended to stick to “the right side of the history” — meaning uncompromising opposition to Assad and support for anyone who promised to topple him, up to and including the Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. Erdogan was not motivated here solely by moral objections to Assad’s misdeeds: He was also acting according to hubris, namely his own belief in what he regards as Ankara’s capacity to shape the Middle East as it sees fit. Turkey’s Sunni bias may also account for a certain degree of sympathy to IS and other Sunni extremists.

There is another factor, little noted in the West, that looms especially large in Turkish calculations: the Kurdish issue. It plays a major role in defining Turkey’s approach to Syria. Turkish officials worry that developments in Syria and Iraq could not only overturn Turkey’s peace process with its own Kurdish population but also lead to the emergence of an independent Kurdistan. These scenarios pose a mortal challenge for Ankara. As President Erdogan recently said: “For us [Turkey], the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is the same as ISIS. It is wrong to consider them as different from each other.” The Turkish government’s refusal to differentiate between the Kurds and IS fighters may now be breaking down, though. Some Turkish citizens are now taking to the streets in desperate, even violent protests to demand that the government help Kurdish forces in Syria to fight IS. Rather than acknowledging those demands, however, the Turkish government has chosen to focus on the violence of some of the protests, imposing curfews in several cities.

Another factor that distinguishes Turkish attitudes toward the Islamic State from those of the West is the refugee crisis. Two years ago, then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu famously predicted that Assad would lose power within weeks. He also said that Turkey would be able to accept no more than 100,000 refugees before it would have to take drastic action. Today Assad is still in power, and Turkey is hosting 2 million refugees. The U.S.-led airstrikes have triggered a new influx of people fleeing the war: Almost 100,000 Syrians have fled to Turkey as of Sept. 23. The refugees are not only a huge burden on the Turkish economy, but are also tearing at the country’s social fabric. In many towns the influx of Syrian refugees has brought serious demographic changes, triggering conflicts between the locals and the refugees.

There’s also the question of whether Turkey has been offering more active support to the Islamic State. Critics have blamed the Turkish authorities for allowing foreign fighters to pass through the country on their way to join IS fighters in Syria. Ankara, for its part, accuses the West — in particular the European countries — of hypocrisy. Turkish officials argue that the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, and Belgium, whose citizens have joined the Islamic State by traveling through Turkey, had declined until recently to give the names of suspected militants to the Turks, citing freedom of travel. The Turks complain that these countries have allowed known IS recruits to fly into Turkey, then ask the Turks to seize them once it’s too late.

Yet the reality is that the Islamic State poses a more serious and direct security threat to Turkey than to the West. Despite the current government’s sympathy to political Islam, Turkey has never really experienced a significant jihadist presence at home before the group’s rise. Now, the Islamic State is not only on the border, its members are becoming increasingly active within Turkey itself. In July, several hundred IS supporters gathered for Eid prayers in Istanbul’s Omerli district, where they prayed that “all holy warriors engaged in the jihad hit their targets.” Everyone in Turkey now realizes the seriousness of the IS threat, and Turkish leaders are moving to join the West. Prime Minister Davutoglu has said Turkey would be willing to send ground troops into Syria if the other allies do their part against the Assad regime and the Islamic State. At the same time, Turkish leaders do not want to be seen as the “servant” of the United States, but want to determine Turkey’s own role in the process. And Turkey is insisting that the West offer a comprehensive plan for Syria that targets Assad, not just the Islamic State.

Some Westerners, along with Syrian Kurds, claim that Turkey has been supporting IS militants more directly. The Turkish government rejects those claims vehemently. Ankara blames the West for failing to develop a proper strategy on Syria, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for practicing the worst kind of sectarian politics, and the United States for withdrawing its occupation forces from Iraq in a way that has reduced the country to chaos.

The problem with all this is that blaming the West or the sectarian policies of the former Iraqi prime minister will not keep Turkey safe. Even though they may not condone its methods, many Turks — including, presumably, many of the governing AK Party’s voters — may believe that the Islamic State represents legitimate Sunni grievances. Right now the Turkish government is focused above all on protecting the security of its borders. But the presence of IS militants inside Turkey, and the possibility of deepening sectarian and ethnic conflict, constitute threats of a potentially far more destructive character.

While some Westerners may hype the threats posed by the Islamic State to the United States and Europe, Turkey clearly has not been taking them seriously enough. Ankara may not be willing to pick sides in the fight between ISIS and the Kurds, but eventually it may have to — even if that means abandoning decades-long state policy on the Kurdish question. The time has come for Turkey to stop scolding its allies and to act to prevent the fall of Kobani.

Berivan Orucoglu is the Turkey blogger for Transitions and a fellow at the McCain Institute’s Next Generation Leaders Program.

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