Turkey and the US led anti-IS coalition: Ankara is doing more than People Think

My apologies. I am traveling this week and don’t have time to write a proper post. However, I wanted to get a few thoughts on paper about Turkey’s role in the US led anti-IS air campaign in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey’s policy vis-à-vis ISIS has always been relatively clear. Ankara has not supported the group and has thought of it as a terror organization for 1.5 years. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, for example, has criticized Sayyid Qutb’s ideology and believes that his understanding of Islam is incorrect. Davutoglu, who is the architect of Turkish foreign policy, argues that Qutb’s understanding of Islam is too heavily influenced by Western political theories. These theories, he argues, are incongruent with the concept of Dar al Islam, which is a  better source of political legitimacy in the Arab/Muslim world. Thus, any suggestions that the AKP supports IS because of an overlap in religious points of view, or a shared ideology, is false. The same applies to Al Qaeda. There is no sympathy in the Turkish government for the ideology underpinning either group.

Turkey, however, did give some support to Jabhat al Nusra. Ankara did so for two reasons. First, after Turkey changed its Syria policy in August 2011, Ankara “bet the farm” on Assad falling in 6 months. After Assad was able to hold on to power, Turkey began to support a slew of rebel groups – including Nusra. Ankara felt that it was imperative to put pressure on the regime to force Assad from power. Nusra was/is an effective fighting force and worked with FSA rebel groups to battle the regime. Second, the Turkish government believes that the Assad is the root cause of extremism in Syria. Thus, if he is forced form power, the appeal of the Jihadists would decrease. In turn, Nusra would be devoid of any widespread popular support and eventually be marginalized in the “New Syria.” Turkey wanted this new Syria to be run by the Brotherhood.

These assumptions guided Ankara’s decision-making up until mid-July 2012. At this stage of the conflict, Assad pulled his forces away from the Kurdish controlled areas. This left the three Kurdish cantons, known collectively as Rojava, to the PYD – a group with links to the PKK. Turkey reacted negatively. First, Ankara threatened to intervene and “establish a buffer zone.” After backing down from this threat, Ankara tried to put the PYD under the thumb of the KDP. This also failed. This eventually prompted Ankara to reach out to members of the PYD – most notably, Salih Muslim. The two sides appeared to have reached some sort of agreement to live in quasi-harmony. Turkey, however, was not comfortable with the status quo. Ankara has kept the border gates with Rojava closed since mid-July 2012 and has only recently begun to intermittently open two border gates along the border to accommodate thousands of Kurdish refugees fleeing from Kobane. (This has had a terrible effect on the Kurdish peace process, but Ill save that for another post/article. But Ill say that this policy was short sighted.)

Turkey continued its relatively lax border policy (albeit only in non-Kurdish majority areas) up until March 2014. It did so for two reasons. First, Turkey still believed that the key to resolving the conflict was forcing Assad from power. And Ankara continued to believe that the foreign fighters contributed to this goal. Second, the opening of a rebel front against the PYD in Rojava was also seen as a net benefit for Turkish security because it degrade the PYD.

In March, Ankara began to crack down on IS oil smuggling. Shortly thereafter – and in particular, after the Sotloff video – Turkey also began to crack down on the foreign fighters. Ankara argues that it should not be singled out for the foreign fighter issue because the majority of fighters are coming from European and Arab countries. They have a point. In the early days of the conflict, intelligence sharing between the EU and Turkey was far from ideal. Things have changed. According to my sources, the EU and Turkey began to cooperate on the foreign fighter issue about a year ago. The program has since ramped up. And then the US got seriously involved after Sotloff. Put it all together and you can see the evolution of Turkey’s border policy.

Turkey’s policy options got even more complicated after the IS take over in June. Ankara ignored warning from the KRG and its allies in Iraq – the Nujaifi brothers – and kept the consulate open. (A consulate they purposefully built on the “Arab” side of Mosul in 2006 to send a message to the Kurds, I might add). During the siege of Mosul, IS took 46 Turkish hostages. These hostages “tied the hands of Turkish government” and, at least according to Ankara, prevented Turkey from adopting more forceful anti-IS language. (Side note: Davutoglu thinks the term “radical Islam” is an orientalist construction used to justify US/Western intervention in the region to advance their interests. These interests, he argues, are incongruent with Turkey’s. So you are never going to hear the type of language used in Washington in Ankara. Not gonna happen.)

The hostages were released a couple of days ago in what appears to have been a prisoner swap. The details of the swap are still coming out, but Hurriyet has reported that Liwa al Tawhid – a Syrian rebel group that has close links to Turkish NGOs and the Turkish government – arranged for the release of 50 IS hostages. President Erdogan has since hinted that Turkey may adopt a more forceful anti-IS policy.

However, as I mentioned above, Ankara had already begun to take more forceful action in March. In addition to the border stuff, counter terrorism officials, working in conjunction with their counterparts in the EU and US, are working together on the recruitment of IS fighters in Turkey. The three sides are comparing notes on “IS fighter profiles” and are working together to break up recruitment networks. This is certain to continue. Turkey has paired this with efforts to crack down on oil smuggling. The Jandarma have been setting up check points along the border to check cars for smuggled oil and more people are being prevented from entering Turkey.

Now, this does not mean that Turkey supports the US anti-IS plan. They don’t. Ankara does not support the idea of a “limited” operation to “degrade and destroy” IS in a similar manner to the operations being conducted in Somalia/Yemen. Ankara argues that limited military action is insufficient. Turkey is also concerned that once the US has “degraded” IS, it will declare “mission accomplished” and pack up and leave. This will then leave Turkey with two failed states, Iraq and Syria, on their borders. Ankara is eager for the US to use airpower to topple Assad. Turkey still views him as the root of all the problems in Syria. (If you want my take on Turkey’s Iraq policy, you can read about it here).

The international community should temper their expectations. Ankara has historically been very wary of allowing US aircraft to operate from Incirlik air base (The shift began in 1980 and the renegotiation of the US-Turkish SOFA. You can also point to the 1974 US embargo after Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus as one of the roots causes of this change to Turkish policy. Ankara has a long memory and has not forgotten the Cyprus debacle in 1974.) The list of restrictions imposed on US military action during “Operation Provide Comfort” reads like an Encyclopedia (Im being felicitous, but you get the point). At some point, one has to ask: is it worth the headache of basing out of Turkey, when the Arab states are far more willing to accommodate US aircraft. This is not an AKP specific thing. This is a Turkey thing – and it dates back to well before the AKP’s election. History suggests that even if the hostage situation did not limit Turkish action, Ankara would have reacted skeptically to a US request to use Incirlik Air Force base (more on this below).

The freeing of the hostages does provide Turkey a with a bit more wiggle room in terms of its anti-IS rhetoric. Erdogan has already stepped it up a bit, telling Charlie Rose “We have to make sure we dry out this swamp.” However, Turkey still points to Assad as being the evil that led to the creation of the “swamp.” Thus, the international community needs to get used to a Turkey that does not sanction military action from NATO air bases in Turkey, and instead limits itself to anti-IS operations on the border.

Turkey was certainly late to the anti-IS party. The border policy was short-sighted and poorly thought out. But things have changed. After the August 21 chemical attack, Turkey actively supported the US plan to hit Assad and even hinted that it would allow for the strikes to be conducted from Incirlik. Thus, it is not out of the question that Turkey could change its policy.Moreover, it helps shed light on the circumstances in which Turkey would open Incirlik (However, one should keep in mind the restrictions imposed on US operations.) Thus, if the US does want to use Incirlik – and this is unclear to me – it appears that it will have to adopt regime change as its policy in Syria.

Absent this type of change, Turkey is likely to continue to confine its role in the anti-IS coalition to the activities its already doing. These activities help. One should remember that the US program to arm and train the Syrian rebels uses a CIA run office in Reyhanli. This operation is coordinated with MIT – Turkey’s intelligence agency. Turkey’s current policy is far better than their previous approach to the conflict. And Ankara would argue that the US’ approach has finally started to reflect Ankara’s preferences for the use of force. The two sides are continuing to work together to combat IS. Differences remain. But both are better off, now that they are working more closely together.

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About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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2 Responses to Turkey and the US led anti-IS coalition: Ankara is doing more than People Think

  1. Pingback: Don’t Blame Turkey for “Dragging Its Feet” in Syria | Atlantic Sentinel

  2. Pingback: The Politics of the Anti-ISIS Coalition

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