Foreign Policy Blogs

Turkey’s Perennial Bogeyman

A view point of the city Kobanê, in Syrian Kurdistan, during the bombradment of ISIL targets by US-led forces, The photo has been taken from Turkish-Syrian border (Suruç). Photo: M. Akhavan / Persian Dutch Network

A view point of the city Kobanê, in Syrian Kurdistan, during the bombradment of ISIL targets by US-led forces, The photo has been taken from Turkish-Syrian border (Suruç). Photo: M. Akhavan / Persian Dutch Network

By Adam Tiffen

As a U.S. ally and member of NATO, Turkey has a large, well-trained, and well-funded military with more than a half-million personnel in uniform. It is also the only NATO nation that shares a border with both Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State continues to take and hold significant territory. As a result, Turkey is uniquely positioned to participate in the fight against ISIS.

Yet the tone set by Recep Erdogan, Turkey’s president, is one of restraint — if not outright rejection — of the fight against ISIS. Under President Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey is becoming part of the problem rather than the solution. What could be causing such a foreign policy disconnect? The perennial bogeyman in Ankara’s closet: Aspirations of Kurdish independence.

The spread of ISIS through two countries bordering Turkey should be raising alarm bells in Erdogan’s government. Among all NATO members, Turkey has the most to lose if ISIS becomes entrenched along its borders. Of the regional powers outside of Syria and Iraq, Turkey has already seen the greatest adverse impact as a result of the fighting. When ISIS forces overran the Iraqi city of Mosul, they took 49 members of Turkey’s consulate hostage and held them for three months. While the Turkish Consulate members were being held, the U.S. was reluctant to pressure Turkey to join in the fight against ISIS, however they have since been released. Since the ISIS advance on northern Iraq, a flood of refugees from the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq have devastated local economies in Turkey’s border regions and cities, leaving aid and civil service organizations overextended.

The ongoing battle for the border town of Kobani is emblematic of the damage Turkish nonparticipation does to the war effort. Airstrikes by the U.S. and its allies have been so far effective in holding off the ISIS advance, but to truly turn the advancing ISIS tide and go on the offense, ground forces that can take and hold territory are required. Turkey could readily supply those forces, yet Ankara shows no willingness to do so.

In fact, Turkey’s actions in the region have been actively counterproductive in the fight against ISIS. Even permitting the U.S. to stage and launch aircraft from the U.S. base in Incirlik has been controversial. Turkey refuted a U.S. official’s suggestion that an agreement had been reached to allow U.S. aircraft to operate against ISIS out of the Incirlik airbase. One consideration in Turkey’s calculus is that of all NATO allies, Turkey is most vulnerable to infiltration and attacks by ISIS forces. Turkey may consider that taking a definitive stand against ISIS would inevitably invite retaliation by ISIS forces.

If so, this perception is shortsighted. ISIS has already shown that national borders are irrelevant to its mission, and it is highly unlikely that they will stop their offensive because of a line drawn on a map. Instead, by failing to act now and by allowing ISIS forces to become entrenched along their borders, Turkey is setting the stage for the potential to spread the conflict across its border.

The Syrian and Iraq Kurdish forces fighting against ISIS have received no support from Turkey, and Ankara has prevented willing fighters from reinforcing their beleaguered comrades in Kobani. Even more alarming, Turkey’s air force actually bombed allied Kurdish military positions earlier this week. This attack was significant because it was the first in over two years against Kurdish rebel forces since peace talks–aimed at ending a 30-year conflict between Kurdish separatists–began. This attack against the Kurds may be emblematic of Ankara’s position: Turkey’s leadership apparently perceives Kurdish aspirations for independence as more dangerous to Turkey’s security than an Islamic fundamentalist regime on their borders.

In a conflict that has seen tens of thousands of civilians slaughtered, women kidnapped and sold into slavery, and systemic human rights abuses, Turkey appears content to do nothing and in fact shows a predilection to prevent other willing actors from taking action. Ankara’s intransigence is not helping the war effort, and its internal struggle with the Kurds is threatening to undermine the mission of the United States and allies. It is time for Turkey to lead, follow or get out of the way.

Adam Tiffen is a co-founder of Tri-Star Collaborative, a firm specializing in sustainable development in emerging markets and post-conflict environments. He is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council and a veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Views expressed are his own.