October 3, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Turkey Steps In: A Good Thing?

 • The Turkish parliament’s vote to authorize the deployment of military forces in Syria and Iraq provided a legal and official framework for such action

• It may appear to be a positive step in degrading and destroying the putative Islamic State (IS), however, the parliament in its vote used the broader term “terrorist organizations,” thus the landscape for Turkey, Syria-Iraq, and regional states and interests remains exceptionally complex

• Though there is nearly universal and implacable opposition to IS among all actors in Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s future role—depending on steps taken—could aggravate tensions not only with Arab Gulf states and Kurdish elements in Syria and Iraq, but Iran, Russia, and the Iraqi government

• Turkey’s desire to create a buffer zone on the Syrian side of its common border remains one of the most sensitive issues

• Amid reports of increased IS pressure on Kobani, Kurdish PKK has insinuated Turkey will be to blame—not IS—for creating conditions for the refugee crisis, and threatens to resume opposition activity in Turkey.

The Turkish parliament’s vote Thursday to authorize use of its army and military facilities in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) may appear at first look to be a positive step for the broader coalition. The measures—to be determined—are in addition to any financial, diplomatic, humanitarian, and support activities for the anti-IS coalition. However, parliament’s vote did not entail Turkey's officially joining the coalition.

After the recent deal—details yet to be revealed—to bring home over 40 hostages IS had taken from Turkey's consulate in Mosul, Iraq, in June 2014, pressure increased for Turkey to take military steps in the anti-IS fight. A factor increasing the possibility of military action is Turkish special operations forces' guarding the tomb of Suleyman Shah, a Turkish enclave in Syria reported to be increasingly surrounded by IS.

Though there is almost universal animus toward IS in the region, there is also nearly uniform resistance to Turkey’s perceived unilateral military involvement in Syria and Iraq, outside the framework of the anti-IS coalition. Turkey’s next moves may cause more conflict than benefit in the anti-IS fight. Indeed, the political landscape for Turkey’s moves at home and abroad remains extraordinarily complex.


Syria, Iran, and Russia

For Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s government, the priority has been and remains the toppling of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Thus, Damascus is intently concerned with Turkish forces’ entering the fray, and their focus and targets. Even more of an issue is perception of the Turkish move, to include its longer-term desire for a ‘buffer zone’ in Syria, as a way to draw more coalition forces—primarily US and closest allies—into deeper military involvement in Syria and Iraq and thus create the conditions for bigger proxy fighters doing Turkey’s bidding. As for Iran, it sees further Turkish involvement as provocation against Tehran, its national interests in Syria, as well as its stake in the future of Iraq—and the region’s most formidable military force tipping the Shi’a-Sunni sectarian balance. Following the Turkish parliament’s vote, Iran’s foreign minister, Muhammad Javad Zarif, called his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, to express strong displeasure at “the method to fight terrorism…and any action that might aggravate the [regional] situation.”

Russia can be counted on to support its allies Syria and Iran, in their loud push back on Turkey’s potential military action. With the resolution including potential foreign military use of Turkish soil, there will be little doubt the Putinist view will express much dismay, publically and through other channels, that it will not tolerate more NATO expansionism into Syria. After all, Moscow cannot, and will not cede Syria which provides its only port and client state in the Arab Middle East.

Syria, Iran and Russia are at least tacitly looking the other way with a US-led coalition, but may seek to reset their positions, with Turkish active involvement in Syria and Iraq.


Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt

Erdo?an’s pro Muslim Brotherhood agenda in the Arab world remains a potent concern for regional Sunni states Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. Their conflict with Turkey over support for and philosophical underpinnings of the Muslim Brotherhood in the political process in the Near and Middle East lurks persistently in the background of their foreign policy moves. These three countries and Arab Gulf states Bahrain and Kuwait no doubt see Turkey’s active military involvement in Syria and Iraq as coming with ulterior motives, astutely maneuvered for long-term justification of involvement in Arab affairs—in Middle East time and memory, the days of the Ottomans were just yesterday. Qatar remains somewhat of an outlier, at least with respect to relations with Turkey, though Doha has shown steady indications of weaning its support and policy geared toward the Brotherhood, not least of which is Qatar’s official participation in the anti-IS alliance.


The Kurds

But it’s not simply state actors where Turkey’s balancing act is on display. One of the reasons Ankara has been reluctant to see allied action in Syria and Iraq is fear of weapons and other support going to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and allied groups. Turkey and the US officially consider PKK to be a terrorist group, regardless of its intensive involvement in the fight against IS. For Turkey, though, it cannot tolerate either PKK’s marshal gains and weapons acquisition therein, or what Ankara sees as its creeping legitimacy and acceptance by the regional and international community. Amid Friday morning reports of increased IS pressure, the PKK has insinuated it will hold Turkey—not IS—responsible if the border city of Kobani/’Ayn al-‘Arab falls. Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan said, “it [Kobani] will not only end the peace process, but will also pave the way for a new and long-lasting coup” and that the PKK would leave peace negotiations for resumption of violent conflict against Turkey. Interestingly, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu remarked, “[we] would do whatever we can” to stop the IS advance on Kobani. The tragic irony here is that the fighting around Kobani has caused more than 150,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees to flood into Turkey, and the refugee crisis—over 1.5 million in Turkey—ranks among the most significant factors precipitating the Turkish parliament’s vote for further (potential) action.



In a geopolitical ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t,’ Baghdad will also express dismay with of any active military intrusions into Iraq outside the already established coalition. Memories run long and deep of Turkey’s historical claims to Mosul and there are suspicions, at least in Shi’a Iraq, of Ankara’s true intentions, and that it only desires to take advantage of the situation in Kurdish—and resource-rich—areas of Iraq. This is one of many factors that could delay cohesion among the broader coalition, if not cause it to break at the seams.



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