September 16, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Turkey: An Essential Partner in Need of Help

 • Turkey is an essential partner in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS)

• Its reluctance to join the coalition goes well beyond its concern for Turkish hostages in the hands of IS

• President Erdogan’s encouragement of deep-seated Islamist sentiment in Turkey may rebound against him

• Both Turkey’s regional value and its national stability could be undermined by its focus on the defeat of Assad rather than on the dangers presented by IS.

The challenges faced by the coalition against the so-called Islamic State (IS) relate in significant part to each of its members seeing the problem differently. Though Turkey has not joined the coalition, it not only can but must play an active role in sorting out the various regional problems that have permitted the rise of IS.

Turkey has always prided itself on being an essential bridge between Europe and the Middle East; and although it is not always blocked with traffic, there is no doubt that as a generally secular Muslim majority State which has been a member of NATO since the Korean War and has long talked of joining the European Union, it offers a unique portal through which other Western countries may understand and so engage more effectively with the Arab States.

Furthermore, Turkey is the gate through which many foreign fighters enter Syria and it is across Turkey’s borders that the extremist groups get much of their supplies and other resources. Oil produced by IS, conservatively estimated at 4,000 bpd, can only realistically be exported through Turkey; and IS representatives are rumored to see Istanbul as a perfectly acceptable location for discussing deals. Engagement with Turkey is important, and the development and execution of a common purpose by the alliance against IS can only work if Turkey is fully supportive.

The fact that IS still holds the 49 Turkish hostages captured when it took over the Turkish Consulate in Mosul in June, including the consul general himself, is often quoted as a factor that inhibits Turkey from taking direct action against IS. This is of course true, but Turkey has other reasons to hesitate. In 2011, when the uprising against the Syrian government began, President Erdogan, in his position as Prime Minister, had a remarkably close personal relationship with Bashar al-Assad, cultivated as part of Turkey’s ‘zero problems with our neighbors’ foreign policy. Erdogan, who is perhaps given to excessive confidence in his own powers, believed therefore that he could quickly sort things out. Finding that this was not the case, he took the rejection of his efforts to mediate as a personal slight, and went all in against Assad. Turkey, therefore, is looking for any tool that will do the job, and Jabhat al-Nusra and IS have a more realistic chance of challenging Assad’s grip on power than any of the medley of other opposition groups. Moreover, Turkey is concerned over the trend—and international acceptance—of Kurdish forces unifying in both Syria and Iraq. Paramilitary fighters of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, are reported to be fighting alongside the Kurdish peshmergha forces in Iraq.

Many of the Arab States will be more circumspect, and would warn Turkey to be careful what it wishes for; but even so, Turkey can reply that there is no coherent plan to follow up the destruction of IS, even if that is possible. Turkey is already suspicious that the United States may be more concerned about protecting its own security and interests in the Middle East than about promoting peace and prosperity in the region as an end in itself. It is a country not immune to wild conspiracy theories, and being a proud nation with a glorious history, can sometimes see all international initiatives as having a Turkish objective, whether overt or hidden. The failure of the ‘zero problems’ policy has not made Turkey rethink its approach so much as to ask who caused it to fail.

President Erdogan has successfully tapped into and nurtured the Islamist sentiment that lurks not far beneath the surface in Turkish society to become one of its longest serving leaders since the end of the Ottoman Empire. Like Atatürk before him, he is reshaping the way that Turkey sees itself and presents itself to the rest of the world; but unlike Atatürk, he regards Islam as an essential part of the national identity. He follows President Putin in that he appears to think as much about what has been lost in the past as what may be gained in the future. He also falls into the trap of believing that he can control outcomes.

For the rest of the international community, it is important that Turkey retains its role as an intermediary between the West and the Middle East. It is equally important that it exercises its influence as a regional power, promoting by example the twin benefits of a tolerant society and a diversified economy. In this respect, its allies should listen to its advice, but at the same time provide some of their own. IS may have the potential to bring down Assad, but in doing so it may seriously undermine the stability of Turkey.


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