Turkey joins coalition against Isis

There are risks in every direction for Ankara as it prepares to join the fight against Isis. Published in MEED, 10 October 2014

For a few weeks, it has been a case of when rather than if Turkey would get more heavily involved in the Syrian civil war. Now, the questions are what will it do and what will the consequences be. None of the options look particularly appealing for Ankara.

Having absorbed more than 1.5 million refugees, and with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) forces menacing towns and cities along the Syrian side of the border, the pressure on the Turkish government to do something has been building up over the summer. Only one thing was holding it back: the fate of 49 hostages captured by Isis from Turkey’s consulate in the Iraqi city of Mosul in June.

The hostages were finally freed on 20 September in rather murky circumstances that, according to hints from Turkish officials, may have involved the release of Isis prisoners held elsewhere.

Parliamentary approval

However it was achieved, it freed up Ankara’s policy options and the change in rhetoric was almost instant. On 22 September, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told US television programme The Charlie Rose Show the country “would do whatever needs to be done” against Isis. A few days later, on 2 October, parliament voted by 298 votes to 98 in favour of allowing troops to be deployed to Syria and Iraq.

By joining the US-led coalition against Isis, Turkey now finds itself in an alliance with some Gulf states with which ties have grown strained in recent years. Turkey’s support for the short-lived presidency of Mohamed Mursi in Egypt and its criticism of the July 2013 coup that ousted him, has led to tense relations with the likes of the UAE, which has strongly backed the new regime of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.

Ankara’s continued support for the Muslim Brotherhood is reason for some in the Gulf to be even more suspicious. Working together on Syria could provide an avenue to counter some of those mutual doubts, or at least show that both sides are willing to cooperate given the right circumstances. At the time of writing, Turkey had yet to get as involved in the fight against Isis as Saudi Arabia or the UAE, which have participated in bombing raids on the jihadist movement. However, unlike any other coalition force, Turkey does already have a small number of troops inside Syria. About 60 soldiers are thought to guard the tomb of Suleyman Shah in a tiny Turkish enclave close to Aleppo, which is a legacy of the Ottoman Empire.

With a parliamentary mandate now in place, it could send far more to follow that small contingent, but the choices of when and where to place its troops are certainly not straightforward. Speaking to the local media on 4 October, Erdogan suggested a three-step process.

“Firstly, the establishment of the no-fly zone [in Syria],” he said. “Secondly, the establishment of a secure zone …. Turkey hosts more than 1.5 million refugees. These people need a secure zone and we should help them to return to their homeland safe and sound. And thirdly, the ‘train and equip’ plan upon which the coalition has agreed.” Since then, Erdogan has called for a ground operation against Isis.

These measures will be difficult and risky to implement. For a start, the UN Security Council will not endorse the idea of a no-fly zone over Syria, let alone a buffer or security zone, because of Russia’s unwavering support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. If Turkish troops do push into Syria without UN backing, it will be an interesting test of international law, although Ankara may be able to claim it as a defensive measure.

Ankara’s plan

“I don’t think they can get support from the UN, so they will try and do it on their own,” says Sylvia Tiryaki, deputy director of the Global Political Trends Center at Istanbul Kultur University. “We are talking of territory inside another country, so without a Security Council resolution, I don’t know how that would fly with regard to international law.”

The desire to create a buffer zone is informed by a mix of security, financial and social concerns. The security threat from Isis is obvious enough, given the disdain the group has for international borders. But for Ankara, there is the added concern of what the Syrian war and the flow of refugees means for relations with its own Kurdish minority and the delicately balanced peace negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey for decades.

While they worry about such issues, the number of refugees just keeps growing. In just one week in late September, 144,000 refugees, mainly Kurds, sought refuge in southern Turkey, according to the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR. The impact of such large, rapid demographic changes is uncertain, but is bound to cause difficulties, and the financial pressures cannot be easily dismissed either. The government says it has spent about $4.5bn on refugees to date, but only received about $150m in international assistance.

The border has in fact been porous in both directions. Turkey has been an important route for Islamist fighters travelling from outside the region into Syria. On a visit to Germany on 18 September, Turkey’s recently appointed foreign affairs minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said the government has been trying to stem that flow and has now placed more than 6,000 people on a no-entry list, with 3,000 of them added in the past seven months.

Notwithstanding the pressure to do something, any Turkish push into Syria carries great risks, not least in terms of who it might end up fighting. Ankara is adamant the Al-Assad regime is just as big a problem as Isis and would like to see both defeated. At the same time, it does not want to see Syrian Kurdish fighters linked to its own domestic Kurdish groups increase in strength. So Ankara has few potential friends and no shortage of potential enemies.

“Turkey is facing two equal opponents in Syria now: Isis and Al-Assad,” says Sabiha Gundogar, director of the foreign policy programme at the Turkish Economic & Social Studies Foundation. “That is one of the issues where the West and Turkey are not in full agreement. Isis [poses] a very urgent threat, but that doesn’t mean Al-Assad isn’t doing the same. For Turkey, it is not just Isis, but the Al-Assad administration that it would like to see changing.”

Even a limited incursion into Syria, in which Turkey tries to create a secure buffer zone of perhaps 15-25 kilometres in depth so that refugees did not feel the need to cross into Turkey itself, could still involve a large area of land – the shared border between the two countries is more than 800km in length. Once troops are there, it is not hard to envisage circumstances where Turkey’s army could get drawn into more direct engagement in the war, with plenty of unintended consequences.

“I’m not entirely against the buffer zone,” says Tiryaki. “I think the government and the military have a point in trying to establish that, but I am afraid if they use it to fight Al-Assad, it may lead to war between the countries and it might bring about civil war in Turkey.”

Those making the decisions in Ankara are old hands at international diplomacy. Erdogan took over as president in August and installed the previous foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, as his successor as prime minister. Cavusoglu was then installed as foreign minister, but the big decisions continue to be made by his superiors.

“Cavusoglu is not experienced enough on Middle Eastern affairs to exert peculiar and substantial influence on Turkey’s foreign policy towards the region,” says Eyup Ersoy, senior researcher at the International Strategic Research Organisation in Ankara. “Furthermore, he has yet to garner ample support within foreign policy bureaucracy to that end. Davutoglu is still in charge of diplomatic affairs.”

Turkey’s recent record in regional diplomacy does not necessarily inspire confidence, however. Under Davutoglu, the Foreign Affairs Ministry had espoused the idea of ‘zero problems with our neighbours’, but that plan has been subsumed by the events of the past three years.

Regional tensions

Beyond the war raging on its southern borders, relations with Baghdad have been strained by Ankara’s desire to buy oil from the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. Elsewhere, its support for Mursi in Egypt and its criticism of the coup that unseated him has strained relations with Cairo and its Gulf backers. At the same time, Turkey’s championing of the Palestinian cause has angered Israel.

With few strong friendships left in the region, Ankara is having to find partners on a case-by-case basis. When it comes to Syria, there is at least no shortage of countries to cooperate with. All of the region’s governments are opposed to Isis and many would like to see Al-Assad removed too. That is perhaps the only positive element in the current situation. Otherwise, the outlook is simply one of great risks. The problem for Ankara as it weighs its options and tries to calculate the potential consequences is that doing nothing is arguably just as dangerous.

“Turkey is in a very difficult position and I think [the government is] aware of this,” says Tiryaki. “Whether it will end up in a good way I have no idea. They are taking lots of risks.”