After months of reluctance to join the international coalition confronting the threat posed by the self-identified Islamic State (IS, but also commonly referred to as ISIS or ISIL), Turkey authorized sending its troops abroad to battle terrorists, and allowing foreign troops to operate out of Turkish bases. This seeming about-face comes after the United States and other countries exerted significant diplomatic pressure on Turkey to help shoulder the burden of defeating IS.
Yet, it is far from clear the United States and its allies have gotten what they wished for. The only terrorist group explicitly named in the motion adopted by the Turkish parliament is not IS, but the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey in order to secure autonomy for Turkish Kurds and is now fighting IS on the ground. This fact, coupled with Turkey’s past support for Sunni radicals in Syria and recent statements by Turkish leaders suggesting their target is not just IS, should give U.S. and international leaders pause and lead them to consider whether Turkey’s ultimate goals in entering the conflicts in Syria and Iraq align with their own.
Since President Barack Obama announced his determination to “degrade and destroy” IS, Turkey has articulated several concerns underlying its hesitance to join the U.S.-led coalition, including: Turkish hostages held by IS; concerns about weapons proliferation in the region, particularly to Kurdish groups; and the ongoing Syrian conflict. With Turkey’s hostage crisis resolved, the United States expressed cautious optimism about Turkey’s greater involvement in the anti-IS coalition. “They first needed to deal with their hostage situation,” Secretary of State John Kerry said, adding “[n]ow, the proof will be in the pudding.” However, Turkish Prime Minister Davutoğlu rejected the idea that the return of the hostages would prompt Turkish action, retorting that “everybody should know…that Turkey does not have to prove anything.”
Just days after Davutoğlu’s comment, President Erdoğan began to walk back his colleague’s statement. He at first suggested that Turkey could provide “give the necessary support to the operation” and that “the support could be military or logistics.” Then, on September 30, 2014, the Prime Minister submitted a motion to the Turkish parliament concerning the deployment of cross-border troops to Iraq and Syria and the use of Turkish territory and bases by foreign troops. On October 2, 2014, the motion passed with 298 parliamentarians voting in favor of it and 98 opposing.
What was it, then, that prompted Turkey’s about-face when many of its concerns about taking action remained unaddressed?
Steadily intensifying international pressure certainly contributed to this outcome. The vote came after a concentrated campaign on the part of U.S. officials. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel visited Ankara as one of his first stops when recruiting a coalition against the Islamic State, yet he walked away without Turkey’s unequivocal support. Instead, Turkey hedged, promising Hagel only that Turkey would play “specific roles” that “would be articulated by the Turkish Government….when that decision is made.”
Since Hagel’s lukewarm reception, President Obama spoke to Erdoğan on the phone ahead of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, where Erdoğan later met in person with Vice President Biden. This concentrated effort on behalf of the U.S. government is a break from the chillier stance it adopted towards Turkey following the violent suppression of mass public protests in the summer of 2013. When Obama called Erdoğan in August to congratulate him on his election as president, it was the first call between the two leaders in six months.
Turkey also appears to have decided that taking action, rather than resisting it, it could better address its worries about both the Kurds and Syrian President Assad. Indeed, a major driver in Turkey’s decision seems to be the recently-launched IS assault on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani that began on September 15, just two short weeks before the government introduced the motion to authorize the use of force.
Turkey originally saw IS and other jihadists groups in Syria as partners in containing the autonomy and aspirations of Syrian Kurds. However, Turkey is now alarmed at the prominence and growing strength of the PKK and PKK-affiliated groups combating IS. As the United States and its allies look for ground forces to partner with, Kurdish groups, both in Iraq and Syria, are on the front lines. As IS advanced into Iraq, the head of the PKK Leadership Committee swore the PKK would “attack IS wherever it is found and with all our capabilities. We will not allow it to progress and achieve its goals.” PKK fighters, alongside Iraqi Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga, have helped push back the IS advance there. In Syria, fighters from the PKK and affiliated Kurdish armed groups are striving to protect Kobani, warning of an IS “massacre” if the town falls. Yet, Turkey has prevented Syrian Kurdish refugees fleeing IS from entering Turkey and PKK fighters from crossing into Syria to join the fight for Kobani. If Turkey’s true and only intention was to defeat IS, it would not hesitate to let the Kurds join the battle. With the Kurds proving themselves as one of the main forces battling IS on the ground—and seeming to gain international standing in the process—and the U.S.-led coalition shying away from striking directly at the Assad regime in Syria, Turkey’s calculations about how to achieve its objectives in the region began to change.
Although being hailed as a sign of Turkey’s entrance into the fight against IS, the motion adopted by the Turkish parliament does not even mention that group. Instead, it enables Turkey to “defeat attacks directed at our country from all terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria,” but explicitly identifies only the PKK as a target. Indeed, the situation that precipitated the need for Turkish action, according to the bill’s preamble, is that “the risks and threats to Turkey’s national security along our southern land borders have increased severely as a result of the developments during the last months. In the northern region of Iraq, armed PKK terror units preserve their presence.” That the Turkish government has intentions that extend beyond the confronting IS, was also made clear by its president. “We are open and ready for any cooperation in the fight against terrorism. However, it should be understood by everybody that Turkey is not a country in pursuit of temporary solutions, nor will Turkey allow others to take advantage of it,” Erdoğan said in an address to parliament, stressing that a military campaign should not be limited to combating ISIS and should also aim to oust Bashar al-Assad.
The motion was opposed by both the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). CHP deputy Faruk Loğoğlu stated that “[t]he best thing that Turkey can do to help this coalition is to eradicate financial supply lines of these terror groups, smash their recruitment capability, end their oil smuggling and provide full control over the border. If Turkey can clean up these terror cells in its own country, that would be the utmost and best contribution to this coalition.” CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu added, “[w]e would support a motion on the struggle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, in short, against terrorist organizations. This was also what the Western coalition was looking for … but this is not the motion that came to parliament. On the contrary, it is about struggling against Syria.” In response, Prime Minister Davutoğlu warned that, if the CHP were to oppose the motion, “history will remember the party as being on the side of ISIS.”
“The most serious and open threat against the peoples of Turkey and of the region is ISIL,” the HDP, who opposed to motion for its focus on the PKK, said in a statement, “[b]ut the government’s motion does not reflect that.”
Same Means, Different Ends?
The wording of the parliamentary motion reveals that Turkey has other motivations for authorizing military action in Syria, motivations that may make it a less productive partner. While presented as a package to combat IS, in line with its role as a partner in the U.S.-coalition, the motion also advances other Turkish goals: a broad-based mandate to combat the PKK and a focus on ousting the Assad regime.
As evidenced by its past support for IS 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 IS, the al-Nusra Front and other radical groups. Turkey then argued that these groups were the most effective in the fight against Assad. More than simply effective, Turkey also saw these groups 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.
While Turkey is now showing greater willingness to work with the United States, it is important to make sure that they are not just working together, but working towards the same goal. U.S. leaders have wisely sought to portray the fight against IS as an inclusive campaign for regional peace and stability, not a sectarian battle. This objective could be undermined if Turkey decides to use the anti-IS coalition as cover for attempts to quash Kurdish political aspirations and strengthen the hand of Sunni Islamist elements of the Syrian opposition. This parliamentary action, then, should be seen as merely the beginning point for critical U.S.-Turkish coordination.