Many Arab states have agreed to join the US-led coalition fighting Islamic terrorists ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have joined even though all three had been supporting radical Islamists in Syria in their struggle against President Bashar al-Asad’s regime. Turkey however, which has the most important strategic assets for a struggle against ISIS, has been dragging its feet, writes Professor Dr Amatzia Baram.
Turkey also objects to the Americans and Europeans arming Syrian Kurds because these weapons could reach the PKK - the Kurdistan Workers’ Party - inside Turkey, with which Ankara has now a peace process. The Turks are wary of Kurdish fighters from Turkey gaining military experience in Syria and returning to Turkey where they could continue their fight for separation and an independent Kurdistan. But this is insufficient reason to stop the Kurds helping each other.
Turkey’s behaviour towards ISIS since June 2014 is not connected solely to the Kurdish issue - there is a far wider issue. Turkey, as a Nato member can hardly opt out of the coalition but it does have a need to stay aloof because of Turkish interests.
Turkey has supported every Islamist opposition movement, including ISIS, in order to topple the Assad regime in Syria. But this was part of a major U-turn in Turkey’s regional strategy. Turkey, until 2011, had been adamant about building a network of bilateral relations with all its neighbours, free of any conflict.
But a few months into 2011 Sunni Islamist movements became very powerful in North Africa. It seemed to Ankara that a strong Sunni opposition was close to toppling the Alawite-hegemonic secular regime in Damascus. This was when Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strategy of zero conflicts with neighbours was changed.
It was replaced with something very different - building Turkey as the leading Sunni power in the region.
Some Turkish analysts saw it as neo-Ottomanism. Turkey became a great supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt. It was committed to support any Sunni-Islamist movement which could fight the Assad regime. That was until June 2014.
The Turkish government is still hoping to play the leading role in the Sunni world. The result is a reluctance to take on an Islamist movement like ISIS. Furthermore, Turkey’s hopes of seeing the Assad regime destroyed is fading fast because in addition to ISIS, the coalition force has also attacked positions held by Jabhat al-Nusra and the mysterious Khorasan movement in Syria – veteran militants from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The American de-facto cooperation with Shia Iran and the help American air attacks are giving Iranian interests in Syria and Iraq are viewed with apprehension in Turkey. Iran is not an enemy, but it is a competitor so the coalition’s military activities in Syria and Iraq are threatening Turkish strategic interests.
What can we expect from Turkey? Perhaps a bare minimum of blocking ISIS revenue sources and preventing the flow of new fighters. Turkey will have to comply with these minimal demands. And if the war continues for longer, Turkey will be pressured to make a far more robust contribution such as allowing the American air base at Incirlik in southern Turkey to be used for military operations.