After refusing for nearly a year to materially participate in the coalition against ISIS, it is a significant development that Turkey will allow the United States, its NATO ally, access to the Incirlik air base for combat missions. And the Turkish airstrikes against ISIS targets that followed the diplomatic breakthrough offer a potentially strategic advantage in the fight against the extremist group. What is not yet clear is whether this change of heart marks a permanent reversal in Turkish foreign policy. It is much more likely to represent a tactical ploy by the embattled Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, than the beginning of a new chapter in U.S.-Turkish relations.
ISIS wasn’t Turkey’s priority. So what changed?
For the last four years, Turkey’s policy toward the conflict in Syria was dictated by two paramount concerns: ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ensuring that Syria’s Kurds were not able to establish an autonomous political entity in the country’s north. To this end, receiving little support from the United States, the Erdogan government embraced, assisted, or at least tolerated various Sunni extremists groups that would battle both Assad and the Kurds while traveling through, organizing in, procuring weapons from, and caring for their wounded in Turkey. Even when this policy began to backfire—such as when ISIS captured 42 Turkish hostages when it took the Iraqi city of Mosul last year—Turkey refused to reconsider its priorities. Nor did Ankara find U.S. entreaties to join the struggle against ISIS persuasive; the self-proclaimed caliphate was not their priority. Until now.
So what changed? Certainly the reengagement of President Obama might have made a difference. Obama, who had once described Erdogan as one of his closest and most trusted friends among world leaders and spoke with him often, has largely shunned him since Erdogan’s violent crackdown on protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park two years ago. But it is also possible that the United States traded Turkey something it cared about in exchange for access to Incirlik. Indeed, Turkish press are reporting that U.S. officials have agreed to allow Turkey to establish “safe zones” along Syria’s northern border, something Ankara has long pressed for and Washington resisted.
The most likely explanation, however, is that after Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority in the June 7, 2015 general election, after 12 years of ruling the country, he is seeking to recover his grasp on power. Rather than deal with a coalition that would weaken his authority, it appears that Erdogan has been seeking to disrupt the possibility of a multi-party government forming, preferring instead to push the country toward early elections. If another ballot is Erdogan’s strategy, then he also needs to be able to make a good case to the roughly 9 percent of voters who abandoned AKP in June to return to the fold. This agreement with the United States could well be a tactical ploy in pursuit of that goal and it would play into Erdogan’s hand in several ways.
Foreign policy is a tool to regain political power
First, Erdogan’s best argument against a coalition government might well be that the difficult issues facing the country require strong leadership, not the indecisiveness, squabbling and inaction that have marked Turkish coalitions in the past. By raising perceptions of the threat facing the country from Syria and putting the country on more of a war footing, Erdogan can more easily make the case for returning the AKP to power. Indeed, he has already tried variations of this approach, mobilizing the Turkish military along the Syrian border, in what looked like the lead up to an invasion, earlier this month.
Second, and related to the first point, ISIS appears to have begun more actively targeting Turkey recently. A suicide bombing attributed to ISIS in the border town of Suruc killed nearly 30 earlier this week and ISIS fighters fired on a Turkish military outpost the same day the Incirlik announcement was made. This might have been enough to change Erdogan’s thinking about ISIS, but it certainly required him to mount some sort of response or risk looking impotent. And weakness is not something he can afford when he is trying to sell himself as the only leader the country needs.
Third, although Turkey has been incredibly generous in accepting around two million Syrian refugees, this policy has not been popular with voters. Creating safe zones within Syria where refugees can be returned, or even just announcing they will be created, would be a good way to address growing dissatisfaction about the presence of and resources being devoted to support displaced Syrians.
Fourth, part of the persona that Erdogan has sought to cultivate is that of respected world leader. The close relationship he seemed to have with Obama was an important part of that image. Erdogan’s office would always play up phone conversations between the two leaders, seek to cast Erdogan as someone to whom Obama turned for advice, and often mischaracterized the nature of those conversations to suggest that Erdogan was able to secure greater favor than was in fact the case. With Obama having left handling of the relationship with Turkey to Vice President Joe Biden recently, it is very likely that Erdogan has missed the limelight. By agreeing to grant access to Incirlik, Erdogan has put himself back in Obama’s orbit and can once again promote his leadership to the Turkish public.
Thus, acceding to U.S. demands for greater support in the fight against ISIS was the right move right now for Erdogan as he tries to regain power. While this is an important step for U.S. efforts in this campaign, and should be fully utilized in the quest to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, policymakers should be cautious about assuming that it marks a convergence of U.S. and Turkish interests in Syria or the region more broadly.