Turkey Rethinks Action on Islamic State

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The official U.S. intervention in Syria against the Islamic State (IS) is now almost two weeks old. During that period of time, the United States has been able to rally the support of regional actors, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan and the UAE, many of whom have joined it in the aerial campaign against IS infrastructure and personnel. The overall approach taken by the coalition has not been without its critics. Turkey has been reluctant to take on IS, even as it has been quite outspoken against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The proximity of IS militants to the Turkish border, however, seems to have done enough to convince the Turkish government officials that it is time to tackle the threat. Still, Turkish President Reccep Erdogan continues to emphasize that Mr. Assad is the real target for Turkey’s involvement in the conflict. Meanwhile, Mr. Erdogan has tried to leverage the current instability to increase Turkey’s influence in the region, something which has not escaped the attention of other actors, including the Egyptians and the Saudis.

Taking aim at what he considers a lack of a well-thought strategy, The National’s Hassan Hassan urges the United States and its allies to reconsider the aims of their current over-reliance on air strikes: “As the U.S.-led offensive against ISIL inside Syria enters its 10th day today, there already appears to be a growing public backlash in Syria against the campaign. The skepticism about the air strikes emanates from the lack of clarity over the real aims and objectives of the offensive….There is still time to pause and consider a shift in the strategy for striking ISIL. As the air strikes drag on without any direct benefits for the local communities, the change in attitude towards a more cynical view of the international role will make a future political settlement in Syria much harder to achieve.”

To be sustainable, any effort against IS and other extremist elements will take more than American air power. Turkey’s involvement in these efforts would be a welcomed step, despite the fact that it could bring with it a different set of challenges. In an article also on the UAE daily, The National, Dan Boylan reports on the recent debates in the Turkish parliament, where Turkish legislators are considering the next steps to be taken: “Turkey will fight against ISIL and other terrorist groups in the region but will stick to its aim of seeing Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad removed from power, Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday….The motions being considered in parliament today include authorising the Turkish army to conduct cross-border operations into Syria and Iraq, allowing foreign forces to use Turkish military bases and finally, securing a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace. In recent years, Turkish foreign policy has evolved significantly with greater proactive economic and political engagement across the region.”

What is Turkey’s motivation and why has it decided to become involved at this particular point in time? According to a Reuters report published on the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman, the possibility that IS fighters could be closing in on the site of an ancient tomb located in Syria but recognized as Turkish territory, might have been the last straw, or as some others characterize it, the best excuse to become involved: “A vow to defend the 700-year-old tomb of Süleyman Şah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, in a Turkish enclave in northern Syria could decide Turkey’s role in the military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said on Tuesday that the militants were advancing on the white stone mausoleum, guarded by several dozen Turkish soldiers and perched on a manicured lawn under a Turkish flag on the banks of the Euphrates….Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, foreign minister at the time, said in March Turkey would retaliate against any attack on the tomb, 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the Turkish border, as ISIL tightened its grip on surrounding areas.”

In the process, Turkish leaders have realized that to be successful they will need to act and while doing so, they will need to make some undesirable alliances. Reflecting on these regional dynamics, Majalla’s Soner Cagaptay noted this past summer the resemblance between Iraq and Syria, and the new challenges that reality presents: “The Kurds in northern Iraq and Syria are pivoting towards their erstwhile enemy, Turkey, to ensure the virtual independence that they have been able to seize….However, Turkey cannot become best friends with the region’s Kurds without making peace with its own Kurdish population….rdoğan is not known for his liberal tendencies, nor is he famous for his embrace of Kurdish nationalism. It is conceivable that after securing election victories in 2014 and 2015, “President Erdoğan” could go back on some his promises to the Kurds. For their own part, Turkey’s pro-PKK Kurds do not like Erdoğan much. Socialist and leftist in orientation, they abhor Erdoğan’s strait-jacket social conservatism….Even with these risks, a new Fertile Crescent has been born, with a de facto Turkish–Kurdish union, flanked by simmering civil wars and jihadist presence to the south.”

Meanwhile, tension has risen between Turkey and Egypt, with each country’s respective leaders accusing the other of harboring and exhibiting authoritarian tendencies, as demonstrated in a recent article by Daily News Egypt’s Aya Nader: “The Egyptian foreign ministry had said that Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan is ‘not in a position to give lessons to others about democracy and respect for human rights and appoint himself the guardian of them’….Erdogan questioned of the legitimacy of the Egyptian government in his keynote address to the World Economic Forum in Istanbul on Sunday evening. On several occasions, Erdogan has referred to the military-backed ouster of Morsi in July 2013 as a ‘coup’….Egypt and Turkey downgraded diplomatic ties last November, with both countries expelling the other’s ambassador, labelling them ‘persona non-grata’ following another round of criticism from Erdogan.”

The exchange is an example of a more assertive Turkish foreign policy in its neighborhood. However, while it may have proven popular domestically, Mr. Erdogan’s standing internationally, according to Today’s Zaman Aydogan Vatandas has suffered: “President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has become an international figure; it is probably the first time so many people outside Turkey know the name of the country’s president since the presidency of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of Turkey. However, during his UN summit speech yesterday, many of the seats in the hall were empty, and it is safe to say that Erdoğan spoke only to a small group of listeners. The main reason for this shift is the fact that Erdoğan has already lost his credibility in the world even though he still has some support on the ground in Turkey….The rhetoric Erdoğan has been using for a long time is quite similar to those of former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and former Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But unlike Erdoğan, they had at least some listeners and were probably more convincing than Erdoğan.”

Other regional powers are hardly standing by idly. In part due to the increase of the threat of Islamists militants, and in part due to the power-shift wrought on by the Arab Spring, regional actors are beginning to create new alliances, which as Arab News’ Mohammed Al Harthi reports, is exactly what Saudi Arabia is doing: “Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s strategic plan to cooperate more closely on the economic, political and social fronts is a ray of hope for a region whose prospects have been gloomy to say the least. To state the obvious, there has been little consensus on the way forward among the leading actors in this part of the world. This has had a major impact on the stability and security of the region. The alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has raised the real possibility that the current power vacuum could be filled….Now more than ever, when there are such dark and forbidding clouds hovering over the region, Arab leaders across the political spectrum must become more pragmatic and put aside some of their individual ambitions for the greater good.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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