TURKEY ON THE BRINK PART II: THE FIGHT AGAINST THE ISLAMIC STATE

Singapore, 9 October 2014

[This is Part II of a two-part series analysing the precarious situation that Turkey has created for itself in the most recent conflict raging in the Middle-East against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.]

Turkey’s decision to join the coalition fighting against the Islamic State (IS) along with other Arab States has long term implications for itself and for the region. Dependent on the actions that it will institute, Turkey’s involvement has the potential to alter the political scenario in the Middle-East in ways that cannot be fathomed now. On the other hand, a clear lesson that emerges from the turmoil that is engulfing Turkey regarding its role in the current conflict is that only sincere buy-in from the regional countries will create the atmosphere for a possible political solution to the tangle. A clear, articulated and executable political solution is a critical requirement for the military forces of the Western coalition to formulate an exit strategy for their military forces. However, as long as the regional States are still double minded whether they should fight or support the IS, the conflict in Syria will remain an open-ended one against extremists, a recipe for disaster if ever there was one. It is into this volatile situation that Turkey is entering.

Turkey’s decision to join the fight militarily is an about face on the policies that it has so far followed. Viewed in a dispassionate manner, the current decision smacks of opportunism in that the decision to assist the coalition has been made when the actual fighting has come too close to Turkey for comfort and the burden of an increasing number of refugees is starting to tell on the economy of the nation. The threat of terrorism spreading to the once tranquil streets of Istanbul was too high a price for the government to pay for support to the anti-Assad forces. President Erdogan’s recent statement that, ‘Turkey… is not in pursuit of temporary solutions’ belies the improvisation of foreign policy initiatives that he has so far carried out. The inconsistencies of his policy towards Syria has been the single most important reason for the situation to have deteriorated to the current extent, where the IS has emerged as a potent threat to any chance of stability in the region.

As little as a decade ago, Turkey had sided with Bashar al-Assad and criticised the Western nations for not engaging with him. This was when within the UN, and internationally, Assad was perceived as stonewalling all efforts to bring in a peaceful solution to the Middle-East—Syria was the biggest stumbling block to ushering in a semblance of stability. As the rebellion in Syria started to take root, Turkey realised the opportunity the uprising presented to establish their own credentials as a ‘Sunni’ State and without blinking an eyelid did a complete about face. Now, Turkey took umbrage against the West for not doing enough to remove Assad’s government and supporting the rebels. The shift from friend to foe was one of the fasted seen in recent political manoeuvrings. Turkey wholeheartedly supported the rebels in Syria and developed deep ties with Islamic entities fighting there. The initial mistake was made at this juncture, when Turkey failed to, or turned a blind eye to, analysing the affiliations of the Islamic groups that it was supporting. It did not distinguish between the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood or the al-Qaeda offshoot operating there, all of them of different Islamic hues.

A direct indication of Turkey’s no holds barred approach to trying for a regime change in Syria is the fact that it brought on great diplomatic pressure on the US to not list Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the more violent extremist organisations, to be put in to the US list of terrorist organisations. That the efforts failed is another matter. Turkey’s attempt at combining the roles that the US and Pakistan did against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the Syrian Civil War also had the same final effect—it created a monster that took on a life of its own. Turkey’s attempt to effect a quick regime change in Syria had disastrous consequences. At the moment a large percentage of the military equipment that the IS is using was funnelled through Turkey; and almost the entire brigade of foreign volunteers fighting with the IS transited through Turkey with the tacit approval of the government.

Even under these conditions Turkey is being welcomed into the coalition and at least overtly no other member is reminding them that it was Turkey’s policy failures that have been substantial causes for the current situation. At least for now there have not been any ‘I told you so’ moments. However, the Arab nations are not overjoyed at Turkey becoming part of the coalition and more undercurrents can be expected to become visible as time moves on. The Arab States see Turkey’s move as opportunistic, which it probably is, with Erdogan intent on once again placing his country as the dominant power in the Middle-East. Turkey still believes that it is the true heir to the Ottoman Empire and revels in its ‘glorious’ imperial past. The Arab nations see the Ottoman Empire as having dominated them for centuries and then with its defeat in World War I as being the prime cause for the current challenges that the region faces. The two views are diametrically opposed to each other and irreconcilable.

The US and its Western allies welcome Turkey to the fold purely because as the only Muslim country in NATO, its joining the coalition provides added legitimacy to the military actions being undertaken. This becomes more important since Turkey has a kept a distance from NATO since 2003. Further, if Turkey makes its fairly large and well developed military infrastructure available, it will ease some of the logistic challenges the coalition now faces. Erdogan knows this and will extract his pound of flesh before any tangible concession is made to the US and its allies. Turkey joining the coalition is like yoking a bull and a goat together and still hoping to achieve a united effort. The strategic aims of the two are very obviously different—the coalition wants to defeat the IS and stabilise the region as a precursor to further political settlements; Turkey wants the destruction of Assad’s government, defeat of the IS being only a tangential collateral to the main aim. This has been made clear by the pre-conditions that Turkey has already put down for joining the coalition as an effective member.

Turkey’s Pre-conditions. Even before they have contributed in any way to the coalition, Turkey has indicated three fundamental conditions that have to be met if it is to take part. First, is that the coalition should initiate military action against Bashar al-Assad; second, a no-fly zone must be created on the Turkey-Syria border, obviously in Syrian territory; and third, safe havens for refuges must be created, once again in Syria. The reason given for laying down the latter two pre-conditions is that Turkey alone cannot bear the burden of looking after 1.6 million refugees. The creation of the no-fly zone will necessitate the neutralisation of the Syrian Air Defence network, something that the coalition will be reluctant to do. There will also be the consideration that this air defence network has been built and maintained by the Russians, making it certain that casualties can be expected if an attempt to destroy it is made. The creation of safe havens will require the employment of ground forces, a situation that the coalition will avoid at all costs. Therefore it seems, at least for the moment, that the US is unlikely to even consider the three conditions seriously when Turkey’s contribution to the coalition is discussed later this week.

From all indications it is apparent that Turkey does not want to confront the IS at either the military or at the political level. One of the primary reasons for this reluctance is that it does not want to be seen as being on the same side as the Syrian Kurdish fighters, affiliated to the Kurdish Workers’ Party or PKK. The PKK have been battling Turkey for more than three decades, and now form the forefront of the ground forces battling the IS. Turkey knows that the three pre-conditions are unlikely to be met by the coalition and have put them forward so that they can drag their feet from initiating any concrete action and getting involved in the conflict. President Erdogan has vocalised this aspect on last Saturday with his statement, ‘For us the PKK is the same as the Isis, it is wrong to consider them in different ways.’ He has also distanced himself from the flow of volunteers into Syria through Turkey by emphasising that ‘no armed fighters’ have  entered Syria from Turkish territory—a very difficult assertion to accept, especially in the face of incontrovertible proof to the contrary. There is no doubt that the anti-Assad fervour had superimposed itself on the more pragmatic need to vet the rebel groups that were receiving aid, both overtly and covertly. In this lack of focus, Turkey is not alone, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf countries are also equally at fault. Turkish public opinion that is set against any military action against the IS adds impetus for the government to avoid being seen as pro-Western and anti-IS.

It is also reported that there already exists in Turkey an extensive web of safe houses as well as hospitalisation facilities catering to the IS fighters. Such facilities cannot be established without the knowledge of the establishment and sympathy from the local people, especially in a country like Turkey, and curtails its ability to act directly against the IS for fear of a domestic backlash. It is unlikely that Turkey will contribute in any meaningful way to the physical fight against the IS. Turkey’s relations with its ethnic Kurds is at the root of the reluctance to take forceful action, even when the fight has now reached its door steps in the town of Kobane (Kobani in some variations).

For decades Turkey has opposed the Kurdish demand for autonomy because it fears that the Turkish Kurds would join with their Syrian and Iraqi counterparts and carve out an independent State with the Kurdish majority territory in Turkey also being enveloped. The Kurds are not entirely happy with the Turkish attempt to join the coalition which they see as Turkey hedging their bets in order to have sufficient influence in the post-conflict phase when the future of the Kurds and their demands would be decided. Purely with regard to the Kurdish issue, Turkey’s only aim is to avoid its territory being taken over to create an autonomous or independent Kurdish State. One gets the feeling that nothing would make the Turkish Government happier than to see all the Turkish Kurds voluntarily move off to Syria and Iraq. However, Turkey cannot wish away or ignore a problem that involves one-fifth of the national population.

It should be hoped, for everyone’s sake, that till the IS is defeated the tensions and challenges within the coalition would remain in the background. Turkey’s entry into the coalition and the demands that have been laid out only adds to the complexity of the functioning of the coalition. At least for the time being these demands are unlikely to be given any priority and Turkey would more than welcome the delay, which would permit them to sit out the fight for longer. Turkish involvement even without any actual action, at least for the time being, looks set to create more confusion than bringing in a more cohesive approach to the principal fight.  Further, if and when the IS is defeated—with or without Turkish assistance—these tensions and the political wrangling that Erdogan has introduced into the equation will surface and subsequently dominate the politics of the region for years to come.

There is also a historical element to the current situation that cannot be ignored. If the Turkish military does get involved, it will be returning to the Middle-East almost exactly a 100 years after being defeated and driven out of the area. For a number of reasons this will not be welcomed by the three prominent factions that control the region—the Sunnis view them as historic oppressors; the Shias see them as the enemy; and the Kurds have never been the beneficiaries of their benevolence. Time to ponder the future!

The battle for the town of Kobane (at the time of writing) has reached a perilous stage with the IS making deep inroads despite coalition air strikes. Within sight of the IS flags being raised in some parts of the town sit Turkish military tanks and other forces, not interfering with the raging battle to relieve the besieged town. Turkey has the second most powerful military in the region, after Israel, and the need of the hour to save Kobane is military might applied in a concerted manner, specifically with boots-on-the-ground. However, President Erdogan is continuing his ambivalent approach to the coalition, prevaricating and waiting for his unilateral demands to be met while time, in the real sense, is running out for the Arab and Kurd inhabitants of Kobane. Either he does not realise it, or if he does has chosen consciously to ignore it, but the stark fact is that the fall of Kobane poses a greater and tangible threat to the long-term stability of Turkey than any amount of trouble that the Assad regime has so far created or can into the future. One cannot forget that a major share of the blame for the situation in Syria was brought on by Turkey perpetuating flawed policies.

Whatever the result of the current conflict, and however long it is going to take, at the end of it Middle-East would have transformed and will be charting a new course; a course that only the nations of the region will be able to control, if at all. Irrespective of any other result, this conflict will produce one definite outcome, no outside force, not even the US will be able to steer the Middle-East in any direction. This is certain. In this situation, a lot rides on the Governments and leadership of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. Unfortunately the individual actions of these nations so far does not provide any reason for confidence. The leadership at the moment are ‘small men’ not even capable of standing on the shoulders of giants gone by, men such as Kemal Ataturk, to achieve status and stature. We are living in interesting times!

End of the two-part series on Turkey 

© [Sanu Kainikara] [add year]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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