Doubts linger over Turkey’s stance on fighting ISIS

Syrian Kurdish men stand near the Syrian border at Suruc in Sanliurfa province, on Sept. 25, 2014.

Syrian Kurdish men stand near the Syrian border at Suruc in Sanliurfa province, on Sept. 25, 2014.

Turkish reluctance to take part in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was largely explained by fears over the fate of 49 citizens abducted by the group.

Now that the hostages are free, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday said Turkey’s position “has changed,” and “what follows will be much different.”

However, he stopped short of saying whether Ankara would join the coalition against ISIS, which has captured large swathes of neighboring Iraq and Syria.

Some experts say Turkey’s lacklustre response to the U.S.-led campaign goes beyond the fate of the hostages.

Turkey is backing moderate rebel groups, and “doesn’t want to see itself engaged heavily in threatening ISIS,” said George Joffe, a research fellow at the Centre of International Studies at Cambridge University.

Sinan Ülgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy, said “the number one reason” is that “ISIS can retaliate against Turkey, given that Turkey has a very long border with Iraq and Syria.”

Several hundred Turks are suspected to be fighting alongside ISIS in Syria. The group is also feared to have sleeper cells in Turkey.

Ülgen said ISIS was able to infiltrate into Turkey due to Ankara allowing more Syrian rebel groups to use its territory, “believing this will accelerate regime change in Syria. That’s why ISIS could’ve established cells in Turkey.” Ankara “fears retaliation.”

He added: “Turkey’s strategic aim of this [U.S.-led] coalition should be to address the failures of the governments in Syria and Iraq. Turkey views ISIS more of a symptom and the result of the failure of these two regimes, rather than a totally independent threat.”

While “ISIS is more of a threat to Turkey than the United States, the Turkish point of view is that the international community must now seize the occasion to become more aggressive to force the exit of [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad, and ensure the end of the sectarian policies of [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki’s era.”

Joffe said as ISIS is fighting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considered by Ankara a terrorist group, “Turkey doesn’t want to be seen as in bed with the PKK.”

Joffe said if there was full-fledged Turkish participation in the coalition, there would “likely be an agreement in allowing the Americans to supply the Kurds in Iraq with weaponry and training, in the hope that the [Turkish] PKK will be marginalized.”

Regarding a change in Ankara’s stance, “one has to wait and see,” Joffe said, “but the suggestion is Turkey is now prepared to come in as NATO member and American ally fully on the side of the coalition.”

 
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