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Coalition of the Reluctant: Turkey Wavers on Countering ISIS

By Blaise Misztal

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

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While the nation waits for President Barack Obama to announce his strategy for dealing with the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS or, alternatively, ISIL)—the terrorist group that has seized land in Iraq and Syria, declared a caliphate, persecuted ethnic and religious minorities, and beheaded two American journalists—U.S. officials have been traveling the globe, seeking out partners to help shoulder the burden. Turkey should be a natural candidate for cooperation against ISIS. It borders both Syria and Iraq, ISIS has taken its citizens hostage, and it is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Indeed, Turkey is one of ten members of the “core coalition” against ISIS announced at last week’s NATO Summit in Wales. Yet, to judge by Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel’s visit to Ankara earlier this week, Turkey will prove a most reluctant partner.

The ISIS Crisis

Although it has existed, in various guises, for over a decade, ISIS stormed into the public’s consciousness in June, as it rampaged across Iraq, seizing the city of Mosul. Combining effective military tactics, honed on the Syrian battlefield, with shrewd exploitation of Iraqi sectarian tensions, the group was able to quickly gain territory and support among Iraqi Sunnis and scatter Iraqi security forces. Focusing on the alienation and disaffection felt by many Iraqi Sunnis toward the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad, President Obama originally sought to address the problem by promoting political reconciliation among Iraq’s major sectarian factions. Gradually, however, U.S. policymakers have come to accept that, if ISIS’s advance is to be halted, a political solution will not suffice; a military response will be needed.

As ISIS began to massacre civilians and threaten critical targets—such as the Mosul Dam or northern city of Erbil—the United States undertook a limited campaign of airstrikes to retard its progress while refusing to put “boots on the ground.” More recently, U.S. leaders have begun to sharpen their rhetoric and articulate more ambitious objectives. “There is no containment policy for ISIL,” Secretary of State John Kerry said, describing the group as “an ambitious, avowed, genocidal, territorial-grabbing, caliphate-desiring quasi state” that had to be eradicated, as “leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us.” And President Obama told fellow NATO leaders that, “We are going to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL the same way that we have gone after al-Qaeda.”

With a consensus emerging around a more forceful tack against ISIS, Hagel revealed what he called the “core coalition” against ISIS, consisting of: the United States, Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Poland, and Denmark. This coalition, built on the sidelines of the NATO summit, is meant to adopt a two-pronged strategy of airstrikes against ISIS and strengthening allies on the ground in Iraq and Syria.

The Turkish Angle

Given the joint political and military dimensions of countering the ISIS threat, Turkey, seemingly, is the perfect coalition partner for the United States. Politically, Turkey is the only predominantly-Muslim nation in the core coalition. Not only is it largely Sunni, but has long been critical of the sectarian tendencies of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Ankara, together with other regional Sunni powers, could be a prime candidate for persuading Iraq’s Sunnis to abandon ISIS and throw their support behind a new national unity government. “We’re going to need Sunni states to step up, not just Saudi Arabia, our partners like Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey,” said President Obama. “They need to be involved. This is their neighborhood.”

Turkey could also be a major asset in dealing with the other political actor in Iraq—the Kurds—who will be important in both forging an inclusive government and fighting ISIS on the ground. Despite its decades-long conflict with its own Kurdish population and concerns about regional Kurdish autonomy, Ankara has steadily moved closer to the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. This relationship, largely motivated by Turkey’s energy needs, has come at the expense of its relationship with the Iraqi central government and former Prime Minister Maliki.

As the ISIS crisis unfolded in June, with ISIS seizing Mosul and the Kurds moving to seize Kirkuk – long declared a “red line” by Turkey – Turkey remained silent on the Kurdish move. Commentators speculated that Turkey’s silence indicates an acceptance of an independent Kurdish state in Northern Iraq, writing: “The neighbor that a decade ago was most intent upon keeping Iraq together is now allied with its most ardent separatists — the Kurds — removing a key obstacle to the dismemberment of Iraq as Sunni extremists gain territory.” Militarily, Turkey could also play an important role. A member of NATO since 1952, Turkey possesses the alliance’s second largest army after the United States. The only NATO member to border Iraq and Syria, Turkey is strategically located for any efforts against ISIS. “By geography, Turkey is going to be absolutely indispensable to the ongoing fight against ISIL, because of just where they sit, the access we currently already have militarily and the cooperation that we have militarily,” a senior U.S. defense official said.

Lukewarm Reception

Turkey, thus, was a natural destination on Hagel’s recent tour of potential anti-ISIS partners. Yet, he left Ankara with relatively little to show for his efforts. Partially, this reflective of a broader trend in U.S.-Turkish relations, but it also fits with a pattern of Turkish reluctance to take on ISIS.

While Obama once called former Prime Minister and now President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, one of the leaders with whom he shared “friendships and bonds of trust,” their relationship has steadily cooled. Hagel’s visit to Turkey on September 8, 2014 marked the first time since December 2011 that a U.S. Defense Secretary had visited Turkey—an unusually long time, especially given the regional circumstances.

The weeks leading up to Hagel’s visit saw several pieces highlighting Turkey’s once close relationship with the terrorist group it is now joining with NATO allies to combat. An August 12 Washington Post article called a Turkish border town the “personal shopping mall” of Islamic State jihadists, allowing them to procure and smuggle weapons and supplies across the Turkish border, and even treating militants in Turkish hospitals. On September 5, The Wall Street Journal reported that Turkey refused to let the United States use its territory as a base from which to launch a rescue mission to save hostages, including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, both of whom were later executed. And while Hagel was in talks with the Turkish government, a Turkish daily reported on September 9 that ISIS militants fighting in Erbil were found to have used Turkish-produced ammunition.

Although Hagel sought to portray his trip as a productive one, he did not walk away with any clear indication of what Turkey was willing to do to counter ISIS. Although Hagel claimed that his meetings with Turkish leaders reaffirmed “Turkey’s commitment to be a part of this effort, to destroy ISIL and everything that ISIL represents,” he nevertheless had to hedge that Turkey would only “play roles, specific roles” and that “those will be articulated by the Turkish government…when that decision is made.” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç made clear that any such decisions had not yet been made: “Necessary evaluations regarding the stance our country will adopt regarding this issue will be made by the [relevant] institutions now and from now on.”

Just how striking this Turkish reluctance is can better be understood when contrasted with the reaction Hagel elicited at the capital he visited prior to Ankara—Tbilisi. Georgia is neither a NATO ally—though it aspires to join the alliance—nor on the frontlines of the ISIS conflict, nor possessed of a large military. Yet, Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania called the United States “the strongest and most reliable ally our country has,” and pledged that his country would “fully support what the United States is doing to eradicate these barbarians.” Such full-throated assistance was sorely lacking in Ankara.

Turkish Reservations

The only ally that shares a border with Iraq and Syria, Turkey has several concerns underlying its hesitance: Turkish hostages held by ISIS; concerns about weapons proliferation in the region, particularly to Kurdish groups; and the ongoing Syrian conflict.

On June 11, ISIS militant kidnapped 49 Turks from the Turkish Consulate General in Mosul, including the Consul General, 30 members of the Turkish Special Forces, and consulate workers and their families. The Turkish government has issues a media blackout on the ongoing crisis, divulging only that they are engaged in “delicate and complex” negotiations for the hostages’ release. With the safety of the hostages in question, Erdoğan said in June: “no one should expect me to provoke [ISIS].” And, when Erdoğan and Obama met in Cardiff, Erdoğan was quoted as saying: “We don’t want our hostages to be killed like your journalists.”

Turkey expressed concerns about the possibility of providing arms to Iraq – arms that would go into the hands of the Shi’a central government, and to the Kurds. “We are opposed to this would-be coalition supplying weapons to the central government in Baghdad in particular,” Erdoğan said, explaining that weapons the United States left the Iraqi army when it withdrew are now in the hands of ISIS. Arming Kurds in the battle against ISIS, Turkey fears, “could undermine our settlement process.”

Additionally, Turkey fears that decreasing ISIS’ strength in Syria, where Turkey had originally built a relationship with the group on the basis of their capability in fighting the Syrian regime, would allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to regain power, territory, or even credibility by collaborating with the United States and its allies against ISIS.

Turkey, however, might have other, unstated reasons for not wanting to lend substantive support to the U.S.-led coalition. As evidenced by its past support for ISIS and Sunni Islamist groups in the region, Turkey has a certain amount of ideological kinship with the militants. This cooperative relationship began in Syria, where Turkey first supported the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and later provided material support to ISIS, the al-Nusra Front and other radical groups. Turkey argued that these groups were the most effective in the fight against Assad, but also saw them as an opportunity to shape the outcome of a post-Assad Syria in its own image of an Islamic-oriented, Sunni state, thereby extending its own sphere of influence.

This policy has backfired. Regional upheaval and the rise of extremists such as ISIS have created instability on Turkey’s borders, spilling over into Turkey itself. Far from increasing Turkey’s influence, its foreign policy has left it isolated, with the Islamists it once courted taking Turkish citizens captive and launching attacks against Turkish border towns. Ankara’s reluctance to confront ISIS now may stem, when viewed in the best possible light, in part, from a desire to save face by avoiding fully admitting the failure of its past policies. A more troubling interpretation might be that Erdoğan, and his new Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who as Foreign Minister engineered Turkey’s recent Middle Eastern policy, are not yet fully convinced of their blunders and are still pursuing the same ideological, sectarian ambitions.

U.S. Avenues for Securing Cooperation

Faced with such a hesitant, if not unwilling, ally, U.S. policymakers will need to make two decisions: one to decide just how vital Turkish cooperation is to the anti-ISIS effort and, if it is truly important to get Ankara onboard, how best to do so.

Full Turkish commitment to the coalition forming to combat ISIS would offer many benefits, from its familiarity with many of the most important Iraqi players to the logistical benefits of basing military operations out of a geographically-proximate NATO partner. But U.S. policymakers should consider if some of these advantages might not be outweighed by some of Turkey’s more questionable recent policies and/or mitigated by other options.

Evidence is mounting of direct Turkish support for ISIS, at least in its fight against Assad, which might undermine Ankara’s credibility as an honest participant in the political dialogue between Iraqi Shia and Sunni. Erdogan’s outspoken support for Hamas during the recent Gaza conflict—alone among Middle Eastern leaders, except for Qatar—and anti-Semitic slurs should also call into question whether the Turkish government’s commitment is to promoting stability in the region or pushing an ideological agenda. Moreover, given the U.S. military’s ability to operate from offshore in both the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, coupled with the growing number of countries that have offered real and tangible military assistance and cooperation, such as Georgia, Turkey might not be so logistically vital to an anti-ISIS campaign. Operation Iraqi Freedom, after all, was carried out without Turkish support either.

Should U.S. leaders nevertheless decide to try and secure greater Turkish cooperation they will have to also decide between two options for doing so: courting Turkey by praising its importance, and thereby eliding over its troublesome behavior, or calling Turkey out for its support of Sunni extremists and its role in fomenting regional conflict to shame it into changing course.

The United States has proved unwilling to call out Turkey in the past, most notably on Iran. Turkey has sought a close relationship with Iran, with Erdogan congratulating then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his fraudulent reelection in 2009 and then, in 2010, joining with Brazil to negotiate a nuclear deal without the support of the United States—a deal that the U.S. officials rejected. Instead of taking issues with its ally’s blatant subverting of its interest, the United States accommodated Turkey, never chastising Ankara for its rogue diplomacy with Iran.

These accommodations did little to motivate Ankara to be more cooperative in international efforts to prevent a nuclear Iran. Although Turkey did ultimately agree, in 2011, to accept an AN/TPY-2 anti-ballistic missile radar site on its territory—a move strongly opposed by Iran—it did so with great reluctance and only after securing two concessions: that Iran not be named as the target of the facility and that no information gathered by the radar be shared with Israel. Yet, as revealed late last year, Turkey was also engaged in a massive gas-for-gold scheme with Iran, allowing Iran to earn $13 billion in gold for its energy exports between March 2012 and July 2013, despite stringent international sanctions against the Iranian energy sector.

Still the United States barely reacted. When it closed the “golden loophole” Turkey was exploiting in its scheme with Iran, through executive order in January 2013, it delayed its implementation for another six months, allowing Iran and Turkey to continue their gold transactions until July 2013, to avoid further inconveniencing Ankara. As a result, Erdogan has felt little pressure to cut off Turkey’s ties with Iran, visiting Tehran personally earlier this year to negotiate a Preferential Trade Agreement between the two nations—a trip on which he called Iran his “second home.”

As BPC’s Turkey Task Force argued a year ago: “above all, U.S. relations with Turkey need to move away from rhetoric and toward a more realistic assessment and dialogue about the challenges confronting both nations.” Such frank discussion is especially vital now. There is no reason to think once again turning a blind eye to worrisome Turkish policies will engender greater goodwill in or cooperation from Ankara. In Turkey, U.S. silence is taken as tacit approval, and sold to the public as such. Refraining from chastising the Turkish government for policies that run counter to U.S. priorities—or, in the case of ISIS, a regional policy of supporting extremists that helped create the current crisis in the first place—is unlikely to push Turkey from a reluctant to a willing member of the U.S.-led coalition.