Commentary

Turkey's Reluctance to Take on IS

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

World leaders came together in Paris this week to discuss and pledge support for a U.S.-led intervention in the Middle East against the Islamic State (IS). Many have wondered what position Iraq’s most immediate neighbors, in particular Turkey, might take.  Under the leadership of newly-elected president and former prime minister Reccep Erdogan, Turkey has been seen by some neighbors as overly focused on the removal of the Assad regime in Syria but abnormally lukewarm on combating IS, all the while supporting organizations affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region. This hardly makes Turkey a supporter of the Islamic State, but judging from the comments and observations in the regional dailies, there are many who imply more sinister connections. But given Turkey’s concerns about an empowered and independent Kurdish state, coupled with 49 Turkish citizens currently held hostage by IS forces, a more cautious policy vis-à-vis IS might be more politically acceptable at home.

Writing prior to the international gathering in Paris, Hurriyet Daily News’ Serkan Demirtaş confirmed what many regional observers already suspected with regards to Turkey’s likely involvement in Iraq: “The international conference to be held under French leadership in Paris on Sept. 15 is unlikely to change Turkey’s position vis-à-vis the international military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), according to a Turkish official....Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who will represent Turkey at the conference, will underline the need for ‘absolute elimination of ISIL’s root causes,’ citing the formation of an inclusive government in Iraq and the toppling of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria as necessary priorities to achieve this end.”

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s insistence on the sine qua non of the toppling of the Assad regime in Syria as a prerequisite for Turkish support receives some support from a recent The National (UAE) editorial, which also identifies Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as the root of the problem in Syria: “With the UAE and other Gulf states joining the U.S.-led ­coalition to reverse ISIL’s successes in Iraq and Syria and eliminate its poisonous misinterpretation of Islam, one question quickly comes to the fore: should Syrian president Bashar Al Assad be seen as part of the solution or part of the problem?...Having thus started the civil war himself, he then released Islamists inmates from Syria’s prisons, creating the basis for the radical groups that now include ISIL. While those groups flourished, he concentrated his military forces on attacking moderate opposition groups....Part of the solution? Mr. Al Assad is the root of the problem in Syria. The civilized world is wholly justified to shun his help.”

That has not stopped others from accusing Turkey of complicity in the rise of IS, with the latest reports implying that the Turkish government was supporting IS through the purchase of smuggled oil. Such reports have been rejected outright by the Turkish government, including Energy Minister Taner Yıldız who “denied claims that Turkey has bought smuggled oil from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants, responding to a New York Times report that Turkey was a destination for black market oil supplied by militants. ‘The Turkish Republic is a constitutional state and it must buy and sell according to that,’ Yıldız told reporters on Sept. 15 during a visit to Qatar. ‘It is not our problem if someone says that ISIL oil is mixed with oil coming from Kirkuk. We have not been informed about it, and the whole world knows we would take necessary measures if we were told about something like that,’ he added.”

Turkey’s nuanced position has received backing from some within Turkey, including Hurriyet Daily News’ Murat Yetkin, who believes the Turkish government has the support of the Turkish people, should it decide to stay out of the anti-IS coalition. Mr. Yetkin cautions, however, against a cozier relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood: “The joint struggle against ISIL gives a chance to Ankara to open a new page in relations both with the West and the Arab countries. If Davutoğlu stays firm in not getting involved in military action, the rest of Turkey’s support could get approval from the Turkish people. However, the government should not move sentimentally and harbor the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Turkey. That would not only further widen the gap between Turkey and a number of Arab countries, especially Egypt, which see the MB as a threat to their existence, but would also endorse perceptions in the West about the Turkish leadership’s sympathy for radical Islamist movements in the Middle East.”

Turkish commentators have also been pushing against the prevailing narrative of an illicit relationship between Turkey and the IS, with Abdulkadir Karakelle pointing out on the pages of the Daily Sabah that the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been detrimental to Turkey’s economic interests in the region: “Not only exports, but also Turkish contracting businesses and giant energy projects have faced horrifying challenges in Iraq due to the ISIS threat. Though Turkey has suffered the most economically and politically from ISIS's expansion in Iraq, some international media outlets implicitly accuse Turkey in their articles and editorials of letting ISIS insurgents pass through its borders....A report by TMB suggests that current troubles in Iraq have brought down the total undertakings of the sector. In addition to troubles with exports and contracting, Turkey's long-term energy projects that include Iraq — currently Turkey's top oil supplier — are under threat from ISIS.”

The truth, argues Today’s Zaman’s Ekrem Dumanli, is that Turkey’s hands are tied against the IS, which makes it difficult to take bold and decisive actions against the militants: “Turkey is in a state of complete deadlock about this issue. On the one hand, Turkey is blamed for supporting ISIL and other radical Islamist organizations cooperating with ISIL while on the other hand it is reluctant to actively support the U.S.-led campaign against ISIL. Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone, whose assignment in Turkey ended and he left the country in August, has voiced strong accusations against Turkey....The situation Turkey is in creates a feeling of being pinned against the wall and there seems to be only one reason why Turkey remains silent about all this....ISIL, which has been provided with money, weapon and fighters by Turkey, raided the Turkish Consulate General in Mosul and abducted 46 Turkish nationals, including diplomats and their families. This was great negligence. Now, the country's hands are tied against ISIL.”

Finally, some of Turkey’s reluctance against a full-scale involvement in an anti-IS coalition is also related to what Daily Sabah’s Doğan Eşkinat considers a principled stand against the U.S. tendency to address all regional problems through military means: “In the context of a heated and prolonged debate around the Obama administration's Middle East policy, it is crucial to stand up for one's right to not be cornered into choosing between irresponsible U.S. military involvement in the region — especially because Washington seem more interested in crossing an item off of its to-do list rather than a lasting solution — and terrorist groups with reactionary agendas. Gone are the days when a president of the United States could declare that millions of people and their governments were either with or against America. It's time to turn over a new leaf, take responsibility for past deeds and shortcomings and commit to promoting stability in the Middle East and elsewhere.”


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